Defamation / Reputation, Press Freedom, SLAPPs
VanderSloot v. Mother Jones
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The Delhi High Court dismissed the suit filed by M/S Crop Care Federation of India, the plaintiff against Rajasthan Patrika newspaper and its editors, for publishing articles highlighting the harmful effects of pesticides, insecticides on the human health and asserting high contamination of various prohibited chemicals in the various vegetables available in Rajasthan. The court noted that all the ingredients of defamation action were not fulfilled as the articles were not directed towards a determinate or definite class or group of persons. The court further opined that the plaintiff, by filing case on a matter of public concern, attempted to “stifle debate about the use of pesticides and insecticides”.
The plaintiff, M/S Crop Care Federation of India, consisting of members and shareholders involved in the business of insecticide manufacturing filed this case against the first defendant – Rajasthan Patrika, a newspaper, second defendant – the printer and publisher of the newspaper, third defendant – its editor, fourth defendant – its advisor, the fifth and sixth and defendants – its reporters, for publishing articles containing “falsehoods about the levels of pesticides used, and the alleged harmful effects they have on plant and animal life” [p. 2-4].
The first article dated February 12, 2004, highlighted the harmful effects of pesticides/insecticides on the human health and asserted high contamination of various prohibited chemicals in the various vegetables available in Rajasthan. The second article dated February 13, 2004 attributed the use of high levels of insecticides/pesticides to the personal greed of people involved. The third article dated February 15, 2004 shifts made similar assertions for fruits. The article dated February 16, 2004, discussed the responsibility of various departments including agricultural, pollution control, health and food etc. The article dated February 17, 2004, reported the state government’s plans to deal with the situation while the following one, dated February 22, 2004 was about an enquiry by the central government. The last of the impugned articles described that hundreds of peasants had resolved not to use insecticides in the future [p. 16].
The plaintiff claimed that the articles had the tendency to lower its reputation, and those of its members, and, therefore, claimed damages to the extent of INR 50,00,000 (approx 61,000 USD).
The judgement was delivered by Justice S. Ravindra Bhat of the High Court of Delhi. The central issue for consideration was whether the defendants had published defamatory articles against the plaintiffs. The plaintiff contended that the articles published in Rajasthan Patrika in the month of February 2004 contained “falsehoods about the levels of pesticides used, and the alleged harmful effects they have on plant and animal life” and therefore, defamed all pesticide and insecticide manufacturers including the plaintiff’s members and shareholders [p. 4].
The defendants contended that the defamation suit was non-maintainable since the plaintiff being an association of various firms/companies/individuals from all over India could not be termed as a determinate body [p. 5]. The defendants contended that there was no specific reference to any one, or few pesticide manufacturers, and the drift of the articles was to point out to the harmful effect of overuse of pesticides on plant and human life; as well as the ill effects on their account [p. 17].
They further placed reliance on Raman Namboodiri v. Govind Nair (1963 (1) Cri. L. J. 535) to argue that “defamatory matter to be actionable must be such that it contains an imputation concerning some particular person or persons whose identity can be established” [p. 7] and also referred to Knupffer v. London Express Newspaper Ltd.  AC 116, to highlight that “the defamatory words must be understood to be published of and concerning the plaintiff” [p. 7].
The court noted that the three ingredients must be fulfilled: first, the statements must be false and defamatory; second, they must refer to the plaintiff and, third, the statements must be published by the defendant [p. 15]. The main discussion was regarding the second element as both the parties had admitted that there was no direct reference to the plaintiff and/or any of its members in the impugned articles [p. 17]. The court held that the second ingredient was not fulfilled since the reference to the plaintiff was not in “fairly specific terms” [p. 18]. The court highlighted that “the intention of the libeller should appear to point to the plaintiff, and should be sufficiently explicit to tarnish his (the plaintiff’s) reputation. The reference to a class, or group of persons, of whom the plaintiff may be a part, should, therefore, in turn be particular so that the allusion to the plaintiff is fairly certain, to a reasonable man” [p. 18]. The court held that the defendants’ reliance on the Knupffer’s case was correct as a suit for defamation could not be maintainable if the alleged defamatory statements did not refer to a determinate or definite class or group of persons [p. 18].
The court made important observations on this issue and held that, “it is a settled position that when it is written that “all lawyers are liars” or “all religious heads are simulators”, no particular person occupying that position can sue the writer unless he can establish that the words were pointed at him. (Ref. Union Benefit Guarantee Company Ltd v. Thakorlal P. Thakor & Ors., AIR 1936 Bom 114; Eastwood v. Holmes, (1858) 1 F&F 34). On the other hand, if a defamatory statement is made referring to a certain group of people, e.g. tenants of a particular building, then such tenants against whom the statement is made will generally be able to sue. (See Browne v DC Thomson (1912) SC 359). The thin line of difference between the two types of cases is that in the latter type the plaintiff can be identified as the target of the alleged defamation, while in the former he cannot be so identified. The present case falls into the first category and thus no action against the defendants lie in favour of the plaintiff” [p. 19].
The court then considered whether the plaintiff could sue in a representative capacity on behalf of its members [p. 21]. The court held that the plaintiff could not assume the role of a parens patriae and sue, virtually on their behalf [p. 22]. Lastly, the court noted that the the present suit contained all the elements of SLAPP – Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation suit which is “intended to censor, intimidate and silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they abandon their criticism or opposition.” The court opined that the plaintiff, by filing case in a matter of public concern that needed debate, attempted to “stifle debate about the use of pesticides and insecticides”. The court noted that, “whether such use, or overuse of pesticides over a period of time, affects life, plant or human, could be a matter of discourse, but certainly not one which could be stifled through intimidatory SLAPP litigation” [p. 23]. Therefore, the court rejected the suit [p. 26].
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
By recognising that the instant case was a SLAPP suit – Strategic Action against Public Participation and dismissing the suit filed against newspaper which tried to expose high level of insecticides and pesticides in various vegetables, the judge expanded freedom of expression. The court highlighted that the main intention of these kind of suits is not to win the case but to make the defendant succumb to fear, intimidation, mounting legal costs or simple exhaustion so that they abandon the criticism. The court noted that, “free speech and expression is the life blood of democracy. Any action – even civil injunctions, damages, or threat to damages, are bound to chill the exercise of that invaluable right of the people, and the press. By giving such orders, or allowing claims for damages, for perceived injury to reputation, the harm done to freedom of press, which facilitates free flow of ideas is incalculable”.
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