Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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The Italian Supreme Court ruled that for an expression to be considered satire it must be openly divergent from reality, and it be possible to immediately understand its hyperbolic character. When a former mayor had sued a newspaper for defamation, the newspaper responded that their calling the mayor a “megalomaniac” was satire. The Court rejected the newspaper’s defence, and held that the newspaper had presented their defamatory statements as fact and so lacked the necessary irony for them to be considered satire.
On June 5, 2001, the former mayor of Milan, Gabriele Albertini, brought an against an Italian newspaper, edited by Vittorio Feltri, and its journalists who had written allegedly defamatory articles. The newspaper had published three articles about Albertini’s alleged adoption by the Marquise Alberto Litta Modignani. They had also called Albertini a “megalomaniac”. Albertini argued that the articles were exclusively aimed at ridiculing him, and that they offended his honour and reputation. He submitted that the journalists were not lawfully exercising their right to inform or critique, in that the piece of information reported was untrue and lacked, in any case, any public relevance.
The Court of First Instance of Milan ordered the newspaper to compensate Albertini. On appeal, the Court of Appeals of Milan confirmed that ruling.
The newspaper appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court delivered its judgment. The central issue for the Court’s determination was whether the newspaper could rely on the defence of satire.
The newspaper argued that the lower courts had incorrectly found that the information on Albertini’s adoption was untrue. It submitted that while it is correct that the adoption procedure of Gabriele Albertini by the Marquise Litta Modignani was extinguished, the procedure had nevertheless been initiated by the former mayor. It argued that its reference to Albertini as a
“megalomaniac” was satire and that its actions were “harmless”.
The Court confirmed that for the right to report information that may be damaging to the honour and reputation of an individual to be lawfully exercised, three conditions must be satisfied. First, the piece of information shared shall be objectively or putatively true. The requirement is not met where, although the individual facts mentioned are true, the writer maliciously hides other relevant facts or presents them in a way which mislead the recipient into understanding a distorted truth. In essence, the facts must be presented in context. Second, there shall be a public interest in the knowledge of the fact (relevance). Third, the facts shall be illustrated and evaluated in a “civil” way. The piece of writing shall “never exceed the informative purpose to be achieved; it must be characterized by serene objectivity (…) and it must respect that minimum level of dignity to which even the most reprehensible person is entitled”. The Court emphasized that, in light of these requirements, , the public interest in knowing about a specific fact is only achieved where the fact and the news are rigorously correlated. This way, the right to freedom of expression and the right to human dignity (both protected by the Italian Constitution, under Articles 21 and 2 and 3 respectively) are balanced.
The Court noted that the journalists, who insisted that a procedure of adoption had truly been initiated by Albertini, had conversely manipulated the illustration of the facts in a way that induced the readers to believe that such procedure was still in place.
The Court disagreed with the newspaper’s interpretation of the right to satire, and held that the writings did not fall within the scope of satire. It noted that satire, contrary to the right to inform, does not need to conform to the parameter of truth in that it is its very nature to consist of paradoxes, irony, and surreal metaphors and that for information to be considered satire, an expression must be openly divergent from reality, and it thus shall be possible to immediately understand its hyperbolic character. The Court held that the newspaper had presented all the facts (the adoption procedure and the personal characteristics of Albertini) as reliable pieces of information, which therefore lacked the irony and metaphorical nature typical of satire. The Court held that the newspaper’s only aim was, instead, to present Albertini as “incurably vain”.
Accordingly, the Supreme Court rejected the newspaper’s appeal and upheld the ruling of the lower courts.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The ruling clarifies the scope of the right to satire and so, while restricting the expression of the newspaper, defines the boundaries of the exercise of freedom of expression in light of other constitutionally protected rights such as the right to human dignity. The case is a landmark one, and lower courts and the Supreme Court have adopted the definition of satire provided by this decision in subsequent cases.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
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