Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Expands Expression
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Two German journalists published statements concerning a well-known publisher alleging that the publisher had been unjustly enriched as a result of Nazi-era seizures of Jewish property-owners’ assets. The publisher sued the journalists for defamation, claiming that the statements lacked a factual basis. The German courts agreed and the journalists lodged an application before the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”). The ECtHR upheld the holding of the domestic courts.
The Applicants, Mr. Keiser and Mr. Tralau-Kleinert, are German nationals who published articles for an online newspaper entitled Neue Rheinische Zeitung (“New Rheinian Newspaper”). The Respondent is the German government.
In 2006, the Applicants published articles in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung alleging that a well-known German publisher’s family (“the publisher”) had benefited financially as a result of the Nazi-era policy of “aryanization” of Jewish property (nationalistic seizing of Jewish-owned property). The publisher sued the Applicants for defamation in domestic German courts, alleging that the statements made in the Zeitung article had no factual basis. The German courts agreed, finding that the article substantially interfered with the publisher’s personality rights. In September 2007, the Cologne Regional Court prohibited further publication of the article, and its decision was upheld on appeal.
The Applicants then lodged an application before the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”), alleging that by suppressing further publication of the Zeitung article, the German courts had violated their right to Freedom of Expression as enshrined in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”).
In reaching its decision, the ECtHR noted that the Applicants had failed to demonstrate a substantial evidentiary basis for the claims made in their article. The ECtHR further noted that the domestic courts had given the Applicants a full opportunity to present evidence substantiating the claims made in their article, yet the Applicants had failed to do so. The Court observed that, in light of such a failure, the claims made in the article moved into the realm of value judgments, and moreover, some of the claims amounted to mere statements of opinion. In light of the seriousness of the claims alleged, this amounted to an infringement on the publisher’s personality rights.
The ECtHR further observed the thoroughness with which the domestic courts addressed the issue, and noted that the domestic courts had given the Applicants sufficient opportunity to substantiate their claims and to prove the authority of their sources. The domestic courts therefore had not denied the Applicants a sufficient domestic remedy in finding for the publisher.
Accordingly, in light of the foregoing, the ECtHR found no violation of the journalists’ Article 10 Freedom of Expression.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The ECtHR sided with the German courts in convicting two journalists for defamation because the journalists had published statements that lacked a sufficient basis in fact. Although the case prevented further publication of the defamatory article, the case can be interpreted to protect the freedom of expression by protecting high standards of journalistic integrity. It also protects individuals who may be victims of malicious publications.
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 judgments of the ECtHR have persuasive authority on the domestic courts of States Parties and on future ECtHR judgments concerning similar legal issues.
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