Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Contracts Expression
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The Argentine Supreme Court upheld a sentence against three newspapers which had published information on the criminal charges alleged against an individual. Julio Campillay sued three newspapers for violating his fundamental rights by arguing that the articles negatively impacted his reputation, honor, and good name since the crime allegations were false. The Court established a test called the Campillay doctrine, through which the press could be exonerated for divulging information. It took into account the press’ proper attribution to the original source and the level of specificity in which the press presented the news. The Court reasoned that the three newspapers failed this test by presenting information as if it were the absolute truth.
Campillay sued three newspapers—Diario Popular, Crónica, and La Razón—for publishing information on an ongoing criminal investigation against him. Campillay was later acquitted of all charges. He argued that his honor had been deeply affected by the articles under the Argentine Constitution, while the newspapers claimed that the information (which was obtained from a federal police report) could not lead to their culpability, and that requiring verification of the truthfulness of such information would go against the freedom of the press and the public’s right to information.
Por Mayoría (Majority Opinion). The Argentine Supreme Court confirmed the ruling against the newspapers. The Court determined that although great protection should be afforded to the right to freedom of expression, this could not translate into impunity of the press. The majority understood that the publication of the incorrect information, which was full of subjective and inaccurate writing, was an abuse of the right to give and receive information.
The Court declared that in order to rid themselves of the liability, the newspapers should have either very clearly established the source they were quoting, phrased the deeds as potentially inaccurate, or declined to provide the identity of those criminally implicated. This test has since become known as the Campillay doctrine. Because the newspapers presented the information as if they themselves had produced it, taking it for the absolute truth, the Court determined that they should be held liable for the harmed caused to the applicant.
Justices Caballero and Fayt dissented in separate opinions, stating that because the false information was not distributed with malice or neglect and the source was unquestionably trustworthy, the media should not be held liable and the freedom of the press should be upheld.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision poses a threat to freedom of expression, in that the reliability of the source and the presence of actual malice were not considered.
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.
OEA/Ser.L/V/II.106, Doc. 6 rev., April 13, 1999.
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