Content Regulation / Censorship, Defamation / Reputation, National Security, Political Expression, Press Freedom
Le Ministère Public v. Uwimana Nkusi
Closed Expands Expression
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The Italian Supreme Court held that, although there are limits to satire, a statement that is hyperbolic and inconceivable is protected. After an Italian member of parliament had sued a newspaper which had used a popular statement which included a vulgar term against him, the Court of First Instance found in his favour and rejected the defence of satire. The appellate court disagreed, overturning the decision. The appellate and Supreme Court confirmed that satire does not need to be true, and that as long as it is “openly divergent from reality” it will be protected speech.
On July 27, 2006, a reader of the Italian newspaper la Repubblica sent a letter to journalist Vittorio Zucconi asking him whether the involvement of Renato Farina (another journalist and a member of parliament) with the Italian Secret Services could be compared to Ernest Hemingway. Zucconi – by referring to a Milanese comedian’s famous joke which had become a popular saying – replied that the reader should not “mistake risotto with excrement” (the actual sentence used a vulgar way to refer to excrements).
Farina brought an action before the Court of First Instance of Monza against the newspaper’s publisher Gruppo Editoriale L’Espresso S.p.a. seeking compensation.
On February 18, 2010, the Court rejected the argument that the Zucconi’s words were a manifestation of his right to satire and found the action to be well grounded.
On April 4, 2013, the Court of Appeals of Milan reversed the ruling.
Farina appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court delivered its judgment, remanding the matter back to the Court of Appeals.
Farina argued that Zucconi’s words were in violation of Article 2 of the Treaty on the European Union which provides that “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality (…)”. He submitted that the journalist’s conduct was in violation of Article 1 of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights establishing that “Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected”. He also argued that the behaviour was in contrast to Articles 2 and 3 of the Italian Constitution which provide for the inviolability of human rights and for the principle of equality, respectively. Zucconi submitted that the interpretation of the Court of Appeals was wrong in concluding that the expression used needed to be contextualized and considered as a metaphor, paradox, and hyperbole, in that it refers to a famous and vulgar popular saying which is clearly satirical and grotesque.
The Court held that conduct consisting in mere and gratuitous disdain, derision, or attack to the human dignity of the person involved cannot be considered an exercise of the right of satire. It added that humiliating, vulgar, and repugnant sentences or juxtapositions which provoke disdain and contempt towards the targeted subject cannot be considered lawful.
In discussing the nature of satire, the Court stressed that satire, however, contrary to the right to inform, does not need to conform to the parameter of truth in that it is its very nature to consist of paradoxes, irony, and surreal metaphors. For it to be considered satire, the expression must be openly divergent from reality, and it thus shall be possible to immediately understand its hyperbolic character.
The Court noted that the Court of Appeals had emphasized in particular the “hyperbolic and grotesque” nature of the sentence which refers to a well-known popular saying (used by a famous comedian), and highlighted that the hyperbole was used to highlight how inconceivable it was to compare Farina to the novelist and Nobel Prize author Ernest Hemingway.
Accordingly, the Court agreed with the interpretation of the Court of Milan that the comparison to excrements had lost its character of extremely vulgar personal attack considering the repeated use of the popular saying.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
In confirming that satire need not be true and can include vulgar languague, the Italian Supreme Court ensured that the media is constitutionally entitled to use satire in its publication.
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.
Lower Courts shall adhere to the interpretation provided by the Supreme Court on the use of popular sayings in the context of the right to satire.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.