Artistic Expression, Defamation / Reputation, Hate Speech, Political Expression
Case of Jose Miguel Arenas (Valtonyc)
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The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) unanimously held that a publishing house’s rights under Article 10 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms had been violated after it was found guilty of overstepping the threshold of permissible criticism in a satirical cartoon. Leading Polish snack manufacturer Star Foods lodged a successful civil claim against children’s magazine Angorka, which had denounced its advertising campaign as inappropriate and referred to its crisp products as “muck.” Upon reviewing the wider context of the case, the ECtHR held that the Polish judiciary’s decision to interfere with Angorka’s right to freedom of expression was unnecessary in a democratic society, even if it intended to pursue the legitimate aim of protecting the rights and reputation of Star Foods. Crucially, the Polish courts had paid insufficient attention to the satirical cartoon’s contribution to public debate, and the duty of the press to disseminate information in the public interest. The Court also observed that the press was entitled to a degree of exaggeration and provocation if it facilitated better performance of their duty.
The two applicants in this case, both Polish nationals, were the owner of a publishing house and the editor-in-chief of one of the publishing house’s magazine supplements for children, “Angorka.” On May 16, 1999, Angorka published a cartoon of a boy holding a packet of potato crisps and speaking to a popular, well-known children’s character (a cartoon dog named Reksio). The potato crisps featured the name “Star Foods,” and the boy was pictured as saying, “Don’t worry! I would be a murderer too if I ate this muck!” On the next page of the magazine, an article explained that the cartoon was in relation to a recent advertising campaign by Star Foods crisps, in which inappropriate stickers had been placed on their packaging with phrases such as “Reksio is a murderer.” The article alleged that the campaign upset parents and terrified their children, and was accompanied by another small cartoon in which two cats were holding a packet of crisps. One of the cats was depicted as holding up a piece of paper drawn from the packet with the slogan “Reksio murderer,” and saying to the other “Surely, he is sometimes unpleasant, but a murderer?!”
Star Foods lodged a civil claim in the Lódź Regional Court, stating that its personal rights had been breached per Article 23 of the Polish Civil Code. On May 28, 2001, the court agreed, holding that the cartoon ‘overstepped the threshold of permissible criticism’ (para 11) – particularly considering that Angorka was aimed at children. Moreover, the wording of the cartoon and corresponding article conjured imagery of disgust and repulsion towards the defendant’s products, rather than critiquing the ‘murderer’ advertising campaign itself. The court ordered the applicants to publish an apology in their magazine for discrediting Star Foods’ products without any real justification, and to pay the defendant’s costs and a sum to charity.
The applicants appealed the judgment to the Lódź Court of Appeal. However, their argument was dismissed by the court in March 2002, on the grounds that the cartoon was unjustified in criticizing Star Foods’ products, reputation and brand – and did not amount to any critical assessment of their campaign. Further, the court observed that the applicants were apparently concerned about the impact of Star Foods’ ‘terrifying’ campaign on children, and yet had repeatedly republished the offending slogans in their children’s magazine.
On June 10, 2003, the applicants lodged an application with the ECtHR against the Republic of Poland (the defendant) alleging a breach of their right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the Convention.
The Court adopted a unanimous judgment on September 15, 2009.
Both parties agreed that an “interference” with the applicants’ right to freedom of expression had indisputably occurred. This is because the interference had been legally prescribed per Articles 23 and 24 of the Polish Civil Code, with the legitimate aim of protecting the reputation and rights of Star Foods under the Convention. As such, the Court held that the main – and only – issue in this case was whether the defendant’s interference in the applicants’ right to freedom of expression was ‘necessary in a democratic society’ to achieve the aim of protecting the reputation or rights of others. [para 34]
The applicants submitted that the Polish courts had incorrectly balanced the competing freedoms of the press and of the protection of a company’s reputation. As such, their right to freedom of expression had been unjustifiably and unnecessarily breached in a democratic society. Crucially, the applicants argued that the wider context of their cartoon’s publication had not been properly considered. They alleged that the ‘murderer’ slogan Angorka republished was “mild” compared to the other “highly inappropriate” stickers Star Foods included in their own advertising campaign [para 21] – such as those of a sexual, racist and chauvinist nature. Moreover, the unacceptable nature of this campaign directed at children had already featured in the media and was thus undoubtedly a matter of public interest. Whilst the applicants acknowledged that their language was “provocative and inelegant,” nevertheless, their satirical take on the matter was clearly within the bounds of acceptable criticism commonplace in a democracy. Indeed, the applicants encouraged the Court to balance the commercial interests of the defendant, with the importance of their own participation in general democratic debate.
Finally, the applicants noted the defendant had not suffered any material loss as a result of the publication and, if any reputational damage had occurred, this was the fault of their advertising campaign, not the cartoon.
Conversely, the defendant submitted that the Polish judiciary had acted legitimately and proportionately in protecting the reputation and rights of Star Foods over those of the applicants, in an act of “pressing social need.” Although they admitted that the penalties imposed on the applicants might have interfered with their right to freedom of expression, this was legally permissible under Article 24 of the Polish Civil Code. The defendant argued that the applicants’ cartoon had overstepped the boundaries of acceptable free speech by making a value judgment as to the quality of Star Foods’ products and publicly discrediting their crisps as ‘muck’, instead of directing that criticism towards their controversial advertising campaign. The Polish courts thus acted proportionately in interfering with their right to freedom of speech in a democratic society, in a necessary attempt to protect the reputation of Star Foods.
The Court first reiterated that freedom of expression must extend not only to favourable or inoffensive content, but also to information or ideas that may be deemed offensive or otherwise disturbing. This demand for “pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness” towards expression is a foundational pillar of democratic society. [para 28] Indeed, journalistic freedom is so crucial to a democratic society that any exceptions to it – such as the protection of an individual’s reputation and rights – must be “narrowly interpreted” and “convincingly established.” [para 31] The Court noted that domestic courts do enjoy a margin of appreciation when assessing the existence of any ‘pressing social need’ for restricting the press’s freedom of expression. Nevertheless, any such restriction must be proportionate to, and limited by, the maintenance and safeguarding of the free press in a democratic society.
The Court drew attention to the legal distinction between factual statements and value judgments – the latter being what the defendant argued the applicants had made towards Star Foods’ products. Forcing an applicant to prove the truth of a value judgment infringes freedom of opinion in and of itself, but the Court held it may still be important to consider the adequate factual basis (if any) for making that value judgment when deciding if the interference is proportionate. As such, the Court must consider the wider context of the alleged interference of freedom of expression when determining whether the reasons adduced by Polish courts to justify it were “relevant and sufficient,” and within the bounds of their margin of appreciation. [para 33] Further, the Court must be satisfied that the courts had applied legal standards consistent with those of Article 10, and had “based their decisions on an acceptable assessment of the relevant facts.” [para 33]
The Court’s findings
Firstly, the Court found that the domestic courts failed to sufficiently consider the applicants’ argument that their cartoon was a satirical response to a controversial advertising campaign and contributed to public debate on that subject. The fact Star Foods had targeted an inappropriate campaign towards children “clearly raises issues which are of interest and importance for the public.” [para 37] Given this, the Court reasoned that any interference must be narrowly construed within the sphere of the importance of press freedom and public interest discussion in a democratic society.
Secondly, the Court held that the cartoon was a value judgment satirically denouncing the advertising campaign, rather than a defamatory statement against Star Foods products. The cartoon was clearly a response to the advertising campaign (rather than Star Foods products themselves), because the cartoon contained a cartoon character and slogan present in the campaign itself, the headline ‘a shocking advertising campaign’ was placed above the cartoon, and there was a corresponding article discussing the campaign on the next page. With this in mind, the Court found that the applicants had sought to “raise awareness of the type of slogans used by the plaintiff company and the unacceptability of such tactics to generate sales,” rather than to “denigrate in the minds of readers the quality of the crisps.” [para 38]
Thirdly, the Court found that the Polish courts paid insufficient regard to the responsibility of the press to share information in the public interest. Further, referencing its earlier decisions of Mamere v France ECHR  12697/03 and Dabrowski v Poland ECHR  23806/03, the Court held that this duty of the press extends “to have possible recourse to a degree of exaggeration or even provocation, or in other words to make somewhat immoderate statements.” [para 39] The cartoon had clearly used exaggerated language – but this, the Court held, was a reaction to the Star Foods slogans “which also displayed a lack of sensitivity and understanding for the age and vulnerability of the intended consumers of their product, namely children.” [para 39] Indeed, placing the cartoon within the wider context of Star Foods’ advertising language, the Court did not believe the applicants had overstepped their boundaries of press freedom to share such information and ideas – even if they could have been seen as offensive to Star Foods.
Given the insufficiency of the reasons offered by the domestic courts, the Court held that interference with the applicants’ right to expression was disproportionate to the legitimate aim pursued, and not necessary for the protection of the reputation or rights of others in a democratic society. Accordingly, a violation of the applicants’ rights pursuant to Article 10 of the Convention was pronounced. The Court ordered the defendant to reimburse the applicants for its previous court-ordered penalties paid to Star Foods, and to pay their reasonable and necessary legal costs.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This decision is undoubtedly expansive for freedom of expression by finding that the style of expression employed by the applicants, despite being exaggerated, did not exceed the boundaries permissible to a free press. A satirical cartoon can certainly be interpreted by some as offensive, inappropriate or indeed, defamatory. Crucially, the Court recognised the critical function of the press in a democratic society in disseminating information and ideas that people may disagree with – rather than those that are purely favourable or inoffensive. Indeed, it is understandable that not all judiciaries may ‘get’ a certain joke or understand a particular form of satire, but this case has illustrated the importance of defending the freedom to express that humor nonetheless. The decision showcases that accurate detection of humorous/satirical intent within the contested expression is possible when due attention is paid to context as well as to the subject that the expression is conversing or parodying with (Godioli). Here, the Court made it clear it was not so much concerned with the content of the joke and any potential defamatory action – but rather, with the fact the Polish courts had paid insufficient attention to the satirical cartoon’s contribution to public debate, and the duty of the press to disseminate information in the public interest.
While the balance of this press freedom with the reputation and rights of individuals is undoubtedly a delicate one, this decision emphasises that any legitimate restrictions on that freedom must be interpreted narrowly and proportionately, within the bounds of democratic principles.
Nevertheless, this case does suggest a worrying domestic pattern of private companies lodging corporate defamation claims against media entities when they disagree with how their company or product has been portrayed.
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.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.