Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Expands Expression
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There is a Spanish language version of this case available. View Spanish version
The Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, which researches Holocaust rescuers (the Saviors) and advocates for their recognition, posted on its website information that an Argentinian diplomat who served in Germany during the Nazi reign was responsible for the death of several Argentinian Jews. The Foundation re-published this information from other sources. The official’s grandson filed a complaint seeking compensation for the pain and suffering (daño moral) caused by these accusations. The Court denied compensation.
The Raoul Wallenberg Foundation is a non-governmental organization which researches Holocaust rescuers (the Saviors) and advocates for their recognition. The Foundation published on its website information from several media outlets – citing the sources – that linked a member of the Argentinian diplomatic corps from the Nazi era with the disappearance and presumed death of several Argentinian Jews. In addition to the published information, the piece included the Foundation’s own value judgments about the official’s actions. The former diplomat’s grandson filed a complaint against the NGO because it considered that the published information was false and had caused him pain and suffering (daño moral).
The trial judge ruled in favor of the former diplomat’s grandson, granting compensation for the pain and suffering caused. This decision was upheld by the appellate judge. The NGO filed an extraordinary appeal against the decision of the appellate judge. The Supreme Court overturned the Appellate Court’s judgment and released the appellant from paying compensation for pain and suffering.
The Court had to decide whether an organization that faithfully reproduces information of public interest from respected media outlets, and states an opinion based on such information, is civilly liable for ensuring the “veracity” of this information and must pay compensation for pain and suffering (daño moral) to those who feel offended by the alleged “falseness” of the information published.
First, the Court considered whether a person who disseminates information generated by a third party, if the source of the information is properly identified (fair reporting), may be held liable for the veracity of the information.
In this instance, the defendant published on its website “material taken from various media outlets, expressly citing the source and maintaining the original format”. The Court found that it may not be held liable for the veracity of the information contained therein. [para. 5] for three main reasons. Firstly, if this were not the case, the exercise of the right to freedom of expression would be unreasonably restricted, because it would impose on anyone wishing to disseminate information that they consider relevant the additional burden of confirming the veracity of this information. Secondly, if third parties or intermediaries were held liable for disseminating information whose source has been properly cited, anyone alleging that such information is “false”, would impose the role of censors on these third parties and would discourage the free flow of information. [para. 7]. Finally, anyone alleging that published information went beyond the acceptable limits may bring a complaint directly against the author of the information. This, in the opinion of the Court, prevents confusion and creates clear rules that also support potential victims in exercising their rights.
Second, the Court considered the nature of the value judgements about the actions of the plaintiff’s grandfather, which were included in the disseminated statements. In this regard, the Court stated that “with regard to ‘value judgments,’ the only prohibited acts are ‘insults’ or ‘gratuitous or unjustified humiliation’”. [para. 8]. The Court considered that in this instance, such elements was not present, because the opinions expressed were reasonable in the context of the historical debates to which they referred.
Finally, the Court highlighted the precedent of Kimel v Argentina at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, according to which opinions dealing with issues of public interest, that offend or irritate public officials, are protected forms of expression. In this case, the Court found that the former diplomat’s actions did indeed involve issues of public interest, and therefore opinions regarding his behavior are protected.
In view of the above, the Court overturned the appellate Court’s decision ordering that the plaintiff be compensated for the damages caused.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision applies Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) standards regarding the exclusion of liability for the fair reporting of news published in media outlets (case of Herrera Ulloa v. Costa Rica). It also applies the rule repeatedly set forth by the IACtHR, according to which a person may not be held liable for expressing opinions on events of public interest or about government officials, even when these opinions may be offensive to the people involved. On this matter, the judgment states that the only limit is “gratuitous or unjustified humiliation” that lacks any justification and has no connection whatsoever with the matters of public interest being discussed. Finally, the judgment offers important reflections on exemption from liability for intermediaries, which may be directly applied to the digital realm.
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.
The Supreme Court of Justice is the highest court in Argentina and its decisions are binding.
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