Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Mixed Outcome
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Argentina’s Supreme Court of Justice held that higher protections should be granted to news outlets in defamation claims by public officials. The court adopted the “actual malice” standard, first promulgated in New York Times v. Sullivan, to prevent self-censorship of the press and ensure the public’s right to information. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newspaper, denied its liability for the information provided, and revoked the sentence under appeal.
The applicants, members of the Forensic Medical Corps of the Judiciary, claimed their honor had been tarnished by libelous articles from the newspaper La Nación. The articles and an editorial, which concerned an ongoing investigation on the corps’ functioning, depicted the conduct of its members as illegal—information that was later determined to be false.
Por mayoría (Majority Opinion). The Argentine Supreme Court understood that the protection of the public’s right to information must be granted greater weight when balancing it with certain individual afflictions. To reach this verdict, the Court used the doctrine of actual malice first established by the U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which stated that in order to maintain a genuine flow of information necessary for a democratic system to survive, journalists are not required to confirm the truthfulness of the information obtained when public officials are involved. US, Fed., New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). The affected individual must prove that the entity distributed the incorrect facts with willful malice, meaning with knowledge that the information was false or with reckless disregard to the information’s falsity.
This doctrine serves to prevent self-censorship by the press, allowing it to exercise its right to freedom of expression and protecting the public’s right to information. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the newspaper, denied its liability for the information provided, and revoked the sentence under appeal.
The Attorney General and Justices Highton de Nolasco and Petracchi, in their individual but concurring opinions, highlighted the distinction between the expression of opinions and facts. Their concurring opinions stressed that opinions on public affairs cannot be restricted, and because opinions may not be verified as truthful or false, the doctrine of actual malice should not apply them. Only facts can be presented erroneously, and only then is the standard of actual malice to be applied. Justice Maqueda noted the relevance of public officials’ ability to access the media on their own account, and therefore independently address expressions made about their persona.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The Court continued its protection of the right to freedom of expression when the activity of public officials is the subject of the information distributed.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
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