Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Contracts Expression
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The Delhi High Court in India ordered the removal of two allegedly defamatory articles from media house, Quintillion Business Media’s web port Quint.com against Zulfiquar Khan that contained #MeToo allegations. In response, Khan filed a defamation suit against Quintillion Business Media and sought a permanent injunction to take down the original articles and to remove references to the articles from search engines. In ordering the removal of the impugned articles the Court recognised Kahn’s right to reputation and privacy as well as his right to be forgotten and the right to be left alone. It held that since Quint.com had been ordered to remove the claims, it would not be permissible for other news platforms/websites to republish those claims otherwise it would lead to an endless cycle of suspicion and animosity towards Khan.
The plaintiff Zulfiqar Ahman Khan was the Managing Director of a media house. Quintillion Business Media (Defendant No. 1) operated a digital/electronic news platform called www.quint.com. Defendant No. 2 was an editor at Quint.com and Defendant No. 3 was the author of the allegedly defamatory articles. On October 12, 2018 and October 31, 2018 respectively, the author (Defendant No. 3) wrote two articles against Khan based on three sexual harassment complaints it received from anonymous persons. In response, Khan filed a defamation suit against Quintillion Business Media and sought a permanent injunction for taking down the original articles and for removing references to the articles from search engines. Khan claimed that the allegations were baseless and he had suffered enormous personal grief and professional loss due to them. He claimed that Quint.com did not reach out to him prior to the articles’ publication and thus published a one-sided and defamatory narrative. Quint.com submitted that it was willing to pull down the two articles for the duration of the legal proceedings and accordingly removed them. In the meantime, after Quint.com removed the articles, the articles were republished verbatim by another website called www.newsdogapp.com that attributed its source as Quint.com.
The case was decided by Justice Pratibha Singh, as a single-judge of the Delhi High Court.
The primary question before the Court was whether to grant a permanent injunction in favour of Khan and order the removal of the two original articles as well as related links from search engines results.
Khan argued that the allegations were baseless and he had suffered enormous personal grief and professional loss due to them. He claimed that Quint.com did not reach out to him prior to the articles’ publication and thus published a one-sided and defamatory narrative. Quint.com submitted that it was willing to pull down the two articles for the duration of the legal proceedings and accordingly removed them.
The Court directed Quint.com to remove and not republish the two articles while the case was ongoing. It recognised Khan’s right to reputation and his right to privacy, of which ‘the right to be forgotten and the right to be left alone are inherent aspects’ [para. 9]. It also directed that any republication of the content of the impugned articles or any extracts or excerpts thereof, as also modified versions thereof, on any print or digital or electronic platform, shall stand restrained during the the pendency of the present suit. The Court also ordered that its order be communicated to other digital platforms and search engines to ensure that the articles and ‘search results were not republished in any manner whatsoever’ [para. 10]. The Court directed that search engines must ensure the enforcement of the order within 36 hours of the order being communicated to them.
The Court explained that the #MeToo campaign ‘ought not to become an unbridled and unending campaign’ [para. 7] against an individual with other portals picking up the pulled down content through archived material. It held that the #MeToo campaign could not end up becoming a ‘Sullying #uToo campaign forever’ [para. 7].
Thus, the Court directed the original articles and related search engine results to be removed. Ultimately, a few months after this Order by the Court, the parties entered a Mediation Agreement and resolved the matter amicably as noted in the final Order dated December 2, 2019.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The case contracted expression in a number of different ways. Firstly, it granted Khan a right to be forgotten order even before the veracity of the allegations could be tested. Such an order could have negative implications in other defamation cases where plaintiffs may use this precedent to gag speech even while a trial is ongoing. Secondly, by making harsh observations against the #MeToo movement and observing that it could not become a sullying campaign, the Order may perhaps discourage other victims of sexual abuse in India to come forward and share their accounts on social media.
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.
As a decision of a single-judge bench of Delhi High Court, the decision is binding on all authorities and lower courts in New Delhi.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.