Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Contracts Expression
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The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) concluded that the interference with Mr. Peruzzi’s right to freedom of expression, within the meaning of Article 10(2), could reasonably be considered “necessary in a democratic society” in order to protect the reputation, and maintain the authority and impartiality of the judiciary. Therefore, the defamation conviction for baseless allegations of judicial bias did not violate his right to freedom of expression.
In September 2001, Mr. Piero Antonio Peruzzi, an Italian lawyer, complained to the Supreme Council of the Judiciary by sending a letter regarding the conduct of Judge A, sitting at the Lucca District Court. This letter was, in due course, circulated to several other judges of the same court but without reference to Judge A by name. Those circular letters explored in detail the decisions made by Judge A in the specific proceedings, as well as conveyed the opinion of Mr. Peruzzi himself, who sought to elucidate what he deemed as unacceptable conduct on the part of judges.
At first instance trial proceedings, Mr. Peruzzi was held to have exceeded the limits of his right to freedom of expression and his actions could not be justified under Article 595 of the Italian Criminal Code. On appealing, Mr. Peruzzi was once again denied justification. The appeal court noted that the circulation of a letter such as the one written by the applicant could only harm the dignity of the magistrate who was referenced in it, as well as the image of an independent judiciary. The expressions used by the applicant, outside of a procedural act, aimed to question the professionalism of Judge A. In light of these considerations, Mr. Peruzzi submitted that his conviction for defamation violated Article 10 of European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
The application was lodged to the ECtHR and the first question the Court considered was whether the criticisms in the circular letter had been directed specifically against Judge A. Despite Mr. Peruzzi’s argument that the letter was not directed against Judge A. The circular letter contained whole passages taken from the initial letter he had sent to the Supreme Court of the Judiciary complaining specifically about Judge A.
The second question the Court addressed with was whether the complaints concerning Judge A went beyond the limits of permissible criticisms in a democratic society. With regards to the first criticism that Judge A had adopted unjust and arbitrary decisions, the Court held that this speech was not excessive since it consisted of value judgments which did not have to be ascertained by any proof to be held true and were based on facts that Mr. Peruzzi had experienced.
However, the second criticism was held to have been excessive and unsubstantiated by facts. Mr. Peruzzi claimed that Judge A was ‘biased’ and had ‘willfully’ with ‘malice or gross negligence or through lack of commitment’ committed errors. His implications that Judge A had disregarded the ethical obligations accompanying his profession lacked evidence demonstrative of an element of malice. Thus, the Court held that there was no violation of Article 10, freedom of expression in this case.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
In light of the recent decision in Morice v France, the decision in Peruzzi does not only come as a surprise, but it is also very regressive. The inflammatory factor here, justifying a criminal rather than a civil sanction, seems to rely solely on the fact that the victim of the defamation was a judge, as opposed to an ordinary person. This begs the question of how future freedom of expression cases will be dealt with by the Court when the victim of defamation is a judge, or whether it will stop at a judge or go further by including any high standing profession in society.
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