Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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The Italian Court of Cassation upheld a decision of the Court of Appeal of Milan which found that a newspaper story about the appointment of a university professor was not defamatory because it was in the public interest and was supported by relevant facts. The underlying story alleged that a university professor, Marina Zancan, was appointed to her position through nepotism. In its judgment, the Italian Court of Cassation reaffirmed the factors that have to be considered in defamation cases, focusing on the right of the media to report and an individual’s right to express criticism.
On January 3, 1996, the Italian daily newspaper Il Corriere della Sera published an article entitled, “Asor Rosa? A political betrayal”. The article reported on university politics and alleged that Marina Zancan, a university professor and partner of well-known leftist academic and intellectual Asor Rosa, had been appointed to her university position primarily because of her relationship with Mr. Rosa and to the detriment of a better qualified candidate.
Ms. Zancan sued the newspaper and the journalists involved for defamation under both the Italian Civil Code and the Italian Penal Code. Ms. Zancan’s claim was dismissed at first instance by the Tribunal of Milan. Her claim was subsequently dismissed again on appeal to the Court of Appeal of Milan. Ms. Zancan then took the case to the Court of Cassation, arguing that the law on defamation had been incorrectly interpreted and applied in her case.
The Italian Court of Cassation discussed and analyzed the law that must be applied in defamation proceedings against the press. The Court reiterated the factors that must be considered in the evaluation of such cases: (1) the extent to which the article is a faithful reconstruction of what actually occurred; (2) the writing’s content; (3) the meaning and appreciation of the words and phrases used; and (4) the right of the media to report and to express criticism.
The Court went on to specify the essential elements of the right to report and the right to express criticism. The Court emphasized that the exercise of the right to freedom of expression is conditioned on (1) whether the facts reported are true or are believed to be true; (2) whether the media outlet has taken steps to verify the truth of any allegations made; 3) whether there is a public interest in the matter reported; and (4) whether the reporting is accurate, namely whether the publication limits itself to the actual facts behind the story and does not omit facts that could mislead the reader.
The Court also held that the accuracy of the facts reported and the public interest in the matter are also important factors when considering an individual’s right to express criticism. At the same time, the Court pointed out that the right to express criticism centres not on the facts as such, but on the opinion expressed on the basis of these facts. The Court noted that criticism is inescapably subjective: criticism can be carried out in a harsh way so long as this does not degenerate into excessive personal attacks that merely aim to damage and offend. The Court concluded that the right to express criticism and the right to report both turn on whether or not there exists a public interest in the report- even if only for a small segment of the wider public- and the formal and substantial accuracy of the underlying facts.
Finally, the Court held that in evaluating whether a report was defamatory, it needs to be looked at in context. This way, words and phrases that might on their own be taken to be insulting or defamatory can lose their defamatory character. While, on the other hand, seemingly neutral words can take on a defamatory meaning.
To conclude, applying these principles to the facts of this case, the Court of Cassation ruled that the Court of Appeal correctly applied the relevant law. Even though the criticism against Mr Rosa and Ms Zancan was expressed in a harsh manner, this was not excessive. The Appeal Court found that the report was of public interest and that the criticism expressed had a basis in fact; namely that there was a relationship between Mr. Rosa and Ms. Zancan, and Ms. Zancan was appointed as a professor. The Court therefore dismissed Ms. Zancan’s appeal.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This decision expands expression by recognizing that publications will not be defamatory where they are of public interest and have a basis in fact, even where the relevant publication is harsh in nature. The Court of Cassation also highlighted the importance of context when determining whether a publication is defamatory.
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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