Access to Public Information
Company Doe v. Public Citizen
Closed Expands Expression
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This novel case decides an issue of prisoner internet access, and specifically, the means through which information is obtained. The European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”) found that a prisoner should have access to certain internet sites, even when the information contained in these sites could be obtained through alternative channels of communication, because it was difficult to obtain the information through alternative channels. The Estonian law allowed access to the legal information contained in the sites and allowed prisoners limited internet access.
The Applicant in this case is a prisoner in Estonia who is currently serving a life sentence. This case arises from two main instances. In July of 2005, the Applicant requested access, from prison, to the online Gazette, Supreme Court and administrative court online decisions, and to the online judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”). The Governor of the Parnu Prison denied this request. This denial was affirmed by the lower Courts. The Applicant then appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court found no violation with respect to the request to access the Gazette online as the Applicant had access to paper versions of this publication. However, the Court found that prisoners had a right to information and that this right was violated by the Governor’s refusal to allow access to online Court decisions.
The second incident occurred in October of 2007, when the Governor refused access to various other internet sites. These included the websites of the Council of Europe information Office, the Chancellor of Justice, and the Estonian Parliament. The Applicant claimed that access to these sites was required for ongoing court cases so he could defend his position. The Ministry of Justice dismissed the Complaint. The Administrative Court reversed in part, finding the prison was required to provide supervised access to the Council of Europe Information Office, as this site contained Estonian translations of many cases only available in English on other sites. This was appealed. The Court of Appeal affirmed, which was appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court reversed the lower courts on allowing access to the site, and affirmed on all other counts. The Supreme Court found that these sites were potentially subject to misuse and there were other means through which to access the information. Four judges filed a dissent, and would have found that the Applicant should have been granted access to all of the sites.
The ECtHR combined the two cases into the present decision.
The Applicant alleged his Article 10 right to receive information without interference was violated by the government’s refusal to allow him access to certain websites. The Applicant argued that although information could be accessed in other places it was difficult to obtain. The government countered there was no right for everyone to have access to the internet to obtain information, and by granting access to these sites there is a risk of misuse by the prisoners. Further, the denial of access to these sites left other channels of communication open through which to obtain the information.
The Court first recognized the public’s right to receive information, but noted that this case does not involve the right to information but the means through which to receive information. The government was not completely precluding access to information but rather was limiting the way information could be received. The Court further noted that imprisonment, by it’s very definition, involves some restriction on access for the prisoners. However, the sites in question involved legal information. Access to this information is permitted under the law of Estonian so prohibiting online access to this information constitutes an interference. The Court found this interference was prescribed by law as the imprisonment act allows for restrictions on access. This interference also serves a legitimate aim of protecting against misuse of the internet and thereby protecting the rights of others.
However, the Court took issue with whether this interference was “necessary” in a democratic society. The Court found that prisoners were already granted limited access to internet sites, these three additional sites contained legal information which the prisoners have a right to access under Estonian Law (in other formats), and therefore this did not meet the standard for this interference to be necessary in a democratic society. Therefore, the Court found a violation of Article 10.
The Court did not award damages, finding a violation of rights sufficient compensation, and also refused to award costs as the Applicant had not submitted proof of his costs and expenses.
The dissent disagreed with the conclusion of the majority, finding that the interference was necessary in a democratic society, therefore meeting the standard under Article 10. The dissent would find the security risks and risk of misuse are great, the information was available in other formats, and prisoners are already limited in their freedom of liberty in their role as prisoners. The dissent also argued this should have been decided by the Grand Chamber.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This case expands expression by finding that if a nation allows prisoners access to the internet (which they are not obligated to do), then the nation must have a justification for restricting access to certain sites. Here, the prisoners were allowed access to the internet and the sites the Applicant was attempting to access contained information the Applicant was already entitled to access in other formats. Therefore, the Court found the Applicant was entitled to access these websites.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
“everyone has the right to freely obtain information disseminated for public use.”
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.