Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
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The High Court of Delhi rejected an application interim injunction to prevent a publication before the process of a trial concluded because it amounted to an excessive restriction on freedom of expression. Tata Sons Ltd. (one of India’s oldest and largest employers) sought a permanent injunction and damages on the grounds of unauthorized use of trademark and loss of reputation for the company. While the lawsuit was pending, it applied for a temporary injunction. The court ruled that several factors weigh in favor of free speech when balancing free speech and intellectual property rights, and that such temporary injunctions must not be issued when there was no proof of defamation.
The petitioner company was Tata Sons Ltd., one of India’s oldest and largest employers, with over 100 companies. They were registered users of the trademark, apart from claiming the common law right under the same. They filed a case for unauthorized use of trademark and for damage to reputation thereby caused.
The defendant company was Greenpeace International, an NGO which is engaged in environmental activism. They opposed the industrial activities of the petitioner in the establishment of the Dhamra port, which, according to the defendants, had an adverse impact on the breeding of the injured species, Olive Ridley Sea Turtles. To create awareness for the same, they launched a game based on Pacman, titled ‘Turtles v. Tata’, where the turtles are portrayed as escaping the Tata logo.
The petitioners sought an interim prayer of temporary injunction against the game, based on the loss to the reputation of the company. The petitioners asserted that damage caused during the pendency of the suit due to defamation was not ascertainable and could not be compensated. Therefore, such damage, caused by allegedly false statements, must be avoided by way of a temporary injunction to protect the goodwill and reputation of the company. They asserted that these contentions must be considered in light of the medium used i.e. internet, which had a greater influence than print media.
The defendants made reference to the legal protections accorded to the natural habitat of this species of turtles, which was recognized as endangered. Accordingly, they urged that the proximity of the port to this habitat had an adverse impact on the latter and therefore, the statements were not false. The campaign was a non-violent, peaceful platform of protest and the suit was characterized as ‘Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP)’. They averred that the suit was disguised as a trademark suit due to deficiencies in the case of the petitioners regarding defamation. Trademark law was inapplicable due to the non-commercial usage of the trademark. Finally, they drew attention to the fact that such an injunction in the absence of proof of defamation would amount to an abuse of the process of law to suppress fair criticism.
J. S. Ravindra Bhat-
The Court relied on common law jurisprudence for temporary injunctions in defamation cases to hold that such an injunction before the trial takes place was an unreasonable restriction on freedom of speech. Regarding the truth of the statements, the Court refused to consider the scrutiny to the claims of loss of habitat by statutory authorities that granted environmental clearances and the Supreme Court, while considering intervention applications. The Court observed that Indian citizens were entitled to hold their opinions and mere contradiction with the authorities was not proof of mala fide intention in making the statements. The concurring opinion of other environmental experts and a pending reference to the central empowered committee showed that there was no final determination of the matter. In this context,it was clear the truth or falsehood of the statement had not been established.
The Court also rejected the possibility of setting a different standard for internet publications. The essence of defamation was viewed to be the act of publication and the impact/readership of the same was irrelevant. Therefore, the wider reach of the internet did not call for a separate standard in defamation cases.
In balancing free speech and intellectual property rights, several factors would weigh in favour of free speech: when the expression is primarily communicative rather than commercial; and when the context and impact of the speech suggests parodic usage. Whether means other than parody could have been used and whether the parody was considered savourable were not relevant factors. Therefore, mere usage of a trademark as an object of criticism was inconclusive regarding infringement of the same. The Court can also not cross its mandate in defamation cases and evaluate the impact of parody or the suitability of the medium. Therefore, in the absence of proof of defamation, such temporary injunctions must not be issued.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The Court has expanded freedom of expression in 2 significant manners: in balancing it against intellectual property rights and in requiring judicial determination as a prerequisite for interference with free speech.
With respect to the first, it held that trademarks as an object of criticism cannot create a presumption about the nature of the speech, especially where such speech was not made in the course of trade or by competing products. Where the primary objective of speech is communicative rather than commercial, this presumption is vitiated.
With respect to the latter, it established a higher threshold for interference with freedom of expression. The threshold of evidence required was held to not be the possibility of success (as in interim applications) but final judicial determination of the issue. The Court saw greater harm to public interest in placing interim injunctions on free speech than the damage caused to the reputation of the company during the pendency of the trial.
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.
It is a decision of the Delhi High Court and therefore, it will bind the lower Courts. However, as far as other High Courts and the Supreme Court are considered, it merely has a persuasive value.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.