Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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The Italian Supreme Court upheld a decision of the Court of Appeal in Brescia and ruled that the director of a company managing the blog website “agenziacalcio.it” was criminally liable for defamation in respect of comments in an article posted on the website. The comments were made by a user, Danilo Filippini, against Carlo Tavecchio, the Chairman of the Italian Football Federation in relation to his previous criminal record. The Court reasoned that although the director played no active part in the publication, he failed to remove the article promptly after learning of its contents, thus allowing the spread of its defamatory effects.
This case was triggered by defamatory statements in an article published on the blog agenziacalcio.it in 2009. The statement concerned Carlo Tavecchio, the President of the Italian Football Federation, who the article described as a scoundrel and a previous offender, also referencing his criminal record. On August 1, 2009, the author of the defamatory article sent the blog director an e-mail in which he attached a copy of the Tavecchio’s criminal record. On August 14, 2009, the blog was made subject of a preventive seizure order, which enables a public prosecutor to seize something related to a crime if it is liable to aggravate the crime’s consequences or allow the defendant to commit other similar offences.
In 2014, the Court of Bergamo considered that the blog director was not involved in the defamation activity of the author of the article and acquitted him. However, the Court of Appeal of Brescia focused more on the relevance of the e-mail sent by the author to the blog manager which it considered to be clear proof that he was aware of the publication of the defamatory article. The Court of Appeal said the blog manager was obliged to remove the article and reversed the acquittal.
The defendant appealed to the Italian Supreme Court. He argued that the decision of the Court of Appeal was inconsistent because the Court had accepted that the article was published on the website without any “help” from Maffeis while its decision acknowledged his involvement and, as a result, his liability. Moreover, the defendant submitted that he was not aware of the e-mail sent by the author because he was on holiday abroad without access to the website.
The Supreme Court rejected the appeal. It dismissed the defendant’s argument that the Court of Appeal’s ruling was inconsistent because it had earlier stated that the author of the comment had inserted his own content on the blog without any intervention by the director. Instead, the Italian Supreme Court ruled that the e-mail sent by the author to the blog director was sufficient to make the latter aware of the defamatory statements and the fact that he failed to cancel or block access to the article once he became aware of the issue, was sufficient to fix him with involvement in the defamation.
Further, the Supreme Court stated that the blog director was aware of the article even before the preventive seizure because he had already published a comment on his blog in which he mentioned the article. Indeed, in his comment, the director had attached links to Tavecchio’s criminal record and responded to a press release from the Italian Football Federation of August 8, 2008, in order to clarify an aspect of the story, claiming that it was the duty of his website to provide information free of censorship.
The Supreme Court also rejected the relevance of the fact that the defendant was abroad at the time the author sent him an e-mail, since the defendant had failed to offer any explanation as to why he couldn’t access his e-mail account and intervene in order to remove the defamatory content in question.
For these reasons, the Supreme Court upheld the ruling of the Court of Appeal of Brescia, confirming his conviction for defamation.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This decision contracts freedom of expression because it upholds the liability of a blog director for his involvement in defamation although he did not contribute in any way to the publication of a defamatory article. Moreover, the decision is likely to have a chilling effect on freedom of speech as website hosts and other intermediaries may prefer to strike off or refuse content which could be considered illicit rather than risk liability.
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.
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