Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Expands Expression
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The European Court of Human Rights found that the dismissal of the head of a university department for criticism he had voiced in an email of university management violated the right to freedom of expression. The Court observed that the email discussed issues of public interest – including shortcomings in the running of the university that had been identified by the State Audit Office – and that it had not been insulting or otherwise defamatory. The professor had sent the email after he had heard that his department would be merged with another and that he would be demoted.
The Applicant, Professor Rubins, was Head of the Department for Dermatological and Venereal Diseases at Riga Stradins University in Riga, Latvia. The University’s leadership made a decision to merge this department with the Department of Infectious Diseases and offered Professor Rubins a position at the new Department, but not as Head of the Department. Shortly after the merger was announced, Professor Rubin sent the Rector of the University an email in which he made several allusions to nepotism among the university’s leadership and offered the Rector a “choice” between revoking the decision to merge the two departments or paying Professor Rubins “a certain amount of compensation about which we would have to agree”.
The email went on: “Of course I understand that at the constituent assembly of the University you, as Rector, can secure a decision that is favourable to you. However by this means nothing would come to an end but would only start, as I reserve the right to appeal against all the decision [adopted by] the University in the administrative, district and regional courts, while of course making everything public beforehand and attracting the attention of society. I do not believe that in an election year, taking into consideration the latest news (the conclusion adopted by the State Audit Office on the illegalities at the University, plagiarism on the part of lecturers and professors of the University etc.), you would want to have additional tasks and trouble.” [para. 13]
The rector responded that he could not comply with these demands and set up a committee to investigate the Professor’s behavior. Two months later, the University terminated Professor Rubins’ employment. This was the harshest sanction available.
Professor Rubins filed a claim with the Riga City Kurzeme District Court seeking reinstatement and back-payment of his salary along with compensation for non-pecuniary damage to his reputation. The District Court found for Rubins on reinstatement and back-payment, but rejected his requests for non-pecuniary damages. The District Court reasoned that the content of Rubins’ letter, even if offensive and inappropriate, was not sufficient to be considered “blackmail and threats,” and that the conclusion that the letter constituted blackmail was “mere speculation” on the part of the University. The Court also found that Rubins had not been given an opportunity to respond to the University’s allegations of blackmail. Both parties appealed.
The Kurzeme Regional Court found for the University and dismissed the entirety of Rubins’ claim. The Regional Court considered, most crucially, that Rubins had requested the Rector to perform an unlawful act in his letter, namely, requesting that the Rector annul the decision of the Senate of the University to consolidate and eliminate Rubins’ department. Therefore, the Court found that the act of making the request itself was unlawful, and accordingly, dismissing Rubins was an appropriate and lawful response.
Professor Rubins then filed an application with the Supreme Court of Latvia, which was rejected. He then filed the current application with the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”) claiming that, by allowing the University to dismiss him for raising threats to expose alleged misconduct, the Latvian courts had breached his Article 10 freedom of expression as protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”).
Finally, the University initiated criminal proceedings against Rubins, which were later dropped.
The ECtHR considered (1) whether Latvia’s actions constituted an “interference” with the right to freedom of expression; (2) whether that interference was “prescribed by law”; and (3) whether the interference was “necessary in a democratic society.”
As to the first element, “interference”, the ECtHR found the dismissal constituted an “interference” with Professor Rubins’ Article 10 rights, noting that Rubins’ actions prior to the email in question had contributed to the University’s decision to dismiss him. The Court reasoned, however, that even if the prior acts played no part in the dismissal, the dismissal would still meet a strict definition of “interference,” and therefore, it would be unlawful unless it were prescribed by law.
As to the second element, “prescribed by law”, the ECtHR found that the domestic law of Latvia, and the Latvian courts’ interpretation of that law, did indeed serve as a sufficient basis for Rubins’ dismissal. The Court reasoned that the domestic courts had competently and reasonably interpreted the domestic law and that the law had a legitimate aim.
However, turning to the third element, the ECtHR found that the application of the domestic law could not be seen as “necessary in a democratic society”. The Court noted that the domestic courts had not considered whether there was a public interest in the allegations Professor Rubin raised in his email, nor had they taken account of their veracity. The Court also noted that Rubins’ email did not damage the “honor or integrity” of his employer. Finally, the Court noted that the sanction imposed was the harshest available, and that allowing such a sanction on the basis of Rubins’ email may have a chilling effect preventing other professors from raising legitimate concerns of public interest.
Accordingly, the ECtHR found that the reasons given by the domestic courts dismissing Rubins’ claims were insufficient to demonstrate that Rubins’ dismissal was proportionate to the legitimate aims of domestic law. Therefore, there had been a violation of Rubins’ right to freedom of expression.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The ECtHR’s decision in this case expands the right to freedom of expression. Although the Applicant’s email contained allegations that were likely offensive and inappropriate to the university’s leadership, the domestic courts never considered whether the allegations concerned issues of public interest, never determined whether the allegations actually constituted blackmail, and failed to consider the chilling effect of the Applicant’s dismissal on other legitimate criticism of the university’s leadership. Thus, the domestic courts failed to demonstrate that the interference with Applicant’s Article 10 ECHR rights imposed by his dismissal were proportionate to the legitimate aims of domestic law, and in recognizing this, the ECtHR expanded the freedom of expression.
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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
Judgments of the European Court of Human Rights are binding upon parties to the case and constitute an authoritative interpretation of the meaning of Convention rights for all other States that are party to the Convention.
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