Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Mixed Outcome
Global Freedom of Expression is an academic initiative and therefore, we encourage you to share and republish excerpts of our content so long as they are not used for commercial purposes and you respect the following policy:
Attribution, copyright, and license information for media used by Global Freedom of Expression is available on our Credits page.
The No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court of Beijing Municipality upheld a lower court ruling that a blog post, which heavily criticized a magazine for publishing an article questioning the historic actions of five Chinese soldiers, was not defamatory. The author and editor of the impugned article, “Inconsistencies in the Details of ‘Five Heroes of Wolf’s Teeth Mountain’” which was published by Yanhuang Chunqiu”, a liberal Chinese-language magazine, brought defamation proceeding against Mei Xinyu after he posted a blog defending the heroic images of the five famous Chinese revolutionaries and castigating the magazine. The Court stated that citizens have, by law, a right to protection of reputation and personality and that any damage to those rights must be assessed by considering the context of the impugned speech, its backdrop, the resulting damage and the causation between the action and damage. In this case the Court reasoned that Mei’s post had to be seen in the light of the esteem with which the public held the heroic figures and that it reflected public sentiment and the core values of socialism. The Court further stated that although Mei’s post contained some inappropriate words against the magazine, they did not target the author or editor directly and that the general public would make their own judgement on who was right or wrong.
Columbia Global Freedom of Expression notes that part of the analysis was derived from secondary sources since the appellate judgment is not available.
In 2013, “Yanhuang Chunqiu”, a Chinese-language magazine, published an article written by Hong Zhenkuai. The piece, edited by Huang Zhong, was entitled “Inconsistencies in the Details of ‘Five Heroes of Wolf’s Teeth Mountain”. The author expressed doubts about exactly where and how three of the five Chinese soldiers had jumped off a cliff and “given their lives for their country” during China’s resistance against Japan in the 1940s. He also queried whether the casualties inflicted on the Japanese army in the battle in Hebei had been exaggerated, while suggesting the five warriors had earlier made away with some radishes being grown on ordinary people’s farmland after fighting against their enemies.
After Hong’s article was published, Mei Xinyu wrote a blog post on the microblog Sina Weibo. He slammed the magazine’s editors and authors, questioning if it was wrong for the five soldiers to have picked the radishes and consumed them when fighting a battle for their country. The critic further suggested that the authors and editors be called “sons of bitches”. His blog post was shared 360 times and received 32 comments.
Huang and Hong sued Mei in March 2014 for infringing their reputation rights, requesting that Fengtai District People’s Court of Beijing Municipality order the blogger to halt the infringement. The duo also sought deletion of his comments, public apologies and 5,000 yuan in compensation.
Fengtai District People’s Court of Beijing Municipality rejected the Plaintiffs claim, concluding that, despite the use of uncivilized language, Mei’s comments had reflected public sentiment and the core values of socialism. The Plaintiffs appealed against the ruling to No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court of Beijing Municipality.
No 2 Intermediate Court of Beijing Municipality stated that reputation is the objective and comprehensive regard in which the general public holds a citizen and citizens enjoy the right of reputation pursuant the Article 101 of General Principles of the Civil Law of the People’s Republic of China. Further, it said, that the personality of citizens is protected by law, and the use of insults, libel or other means to damage the reputation of citizens or legal persons is prohibited. In this case, to determine whether Mei’s post had damaged Huang and Hong’s right of reputation, the context of the post, the backdrop of the speech, the resulting damage and the causation between the action and damage should all be taken into consideration.
Firstly, users of Sina Weibo have the right to express their opinions on their personal pages. However, speech on the Internet is subject to the same laws and social morals as other speech, so that it should not cross certain limits or violate the lawful rights of others. After reading Huang and Hong’s article, Mei posted a critical blog post to defend the heroic images of the five famous Chinese revolutionaries. Regarding the content of his post, the first sentence “What kind of hearts the authors and editors of Yanhuang Chunqiu have?” and the second sentence “(they) could not even pick a radish when they were fighting for a war?” do not contain inappropriate words. However, the third sentence suggesting that the authors and editors be called “sons of bitches” does contain some inappropriate words. Despite this, the Court said whether the speech infringed Huang and Hong’s right of reputation must also be judged in context and taking into account other elements relevant to reputation infringement.
Secondly, the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War were decisive battles between justice and evil, between light and darkness, and between progress and reaction. The victory of the Anti-Japanese War has important significance for the Chinese nation and the deeds and heroic images of the five heroes of Wolf’s Teeth Mountain play an important part in the minds of the general public and the national spirit of China. Any inappropriate comments on these heroic figures could hurt the general public’s feelings and trigger complaints and criticism. Huang and Hong should have foreseen that the publication of the article would attract negative criticism because of this and should have been more tolerant towards critics.
Thirdly, damage is an essential element of liability for infringement of reputation. In this case, Mei’s post expressed his opinions on and doubts about Huang and Hong’s article but even though the post contained some inappropriate words the general public will make their own judgement on who is right or wrong based on many other factors and not just the language used by Mei. Besides, the Court said that Mei’s comments were of limited impact because he had only referred to “these editors and authors” and hadn’t named the Plaintiffs in his blog post. It also rejected suggestions that Mei’s words would lower the esteem of the Plaintiffs in the community because the public had targeted the magazine, Yanhuang Chunqiu, and not Huang and Hong.
This is an overview of the Supreme People’s Court which picks cases with significant rulings, reviews them and publishes them as ‘model cases’ from time to time to offer guidance for local courts. It is not a part of the litigation process.
On October 19, 2016, China’s Supreme People’s Court published a piece on its website entitled “People’s Courts Come to the Defense of the ‘Five Heroes of Wolf’s Teeth Mountain’ under the Law and Other Typical Cases Concerning Heroic Figures’ Personality Interest”. The article stated that this pair of cases epitomized attempts made in recent years to denigrate national heroes and to undermine what these figures stood for in society.
The Supreme People’s Court highlighted the complexity of the legal issues involved in this type of tort. It noted that heroes’ individual reputations and honors often related to specific heroic deeds, historical background, social consensus and the mainstream’s core values, and in this way could raise matters of public interest. Accordingly, the Court said, judges must consider these types of cases from a wider perspective and pay full and proper regard to the public interest issue.
The Court noted the increasing complexity of the different interests and legal rights involved, in particular the interplay between freedom of speech, academic freedom and individual rights. It said that while it was necessary to protect individual rights such as reputation which could be infringed in various ways, the justice system should avoid inappropriate interference in academic issues and freedom of speech. Judges, said the Court, must deal with each case on its own facts and carry out the appropriate and necessary balancing exercise between competing interests.
The Supreme People’s Court confirmed that the immediate family of the deceased heroes would have standing in procedural law to sue and the right in substantial law to seek relief in accordance with current law and judicial interpretations. It said that the judges had reviewed the historical circumstances implicated in the cases and that the courage of the five heroes was regarded as part of Chinese collective memory, the national spirit and the socialist value system, and therefore constituted the social public interest. The Supreme People’s Court found that the judges took into consideration Hong’s writing style, the information used, his intention and the damage done in determining liability in the cases.
In conclusion the Supreme People’s Court said that the judges had properly reviewed the relationship between academic freedom, freedom of speech and the protection of rights before striking an appropriate balance between the various interests. It said that the judgments in these cases defended the reputations and honors of the heroic figures and safeguarded the social public interest.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This case has a mixed outcome because whilst it gives precedence to an individual’s right to freely express an opinion over another individual’s right to reputation it also effectively prevents that other individual from expressing his opinion and doubts about Communist heroes.
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.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.