Freedom of Expression and the Right to Reputation: Human Rights in Conflict

As part of our research project I have written a paper on the conflict between freedom of expression and the right to reputation in the defamation case law of the European Court of Human Rights. The paper, based on an analysis of over 120 judgments and entitled “Freedom of Expression and the Right to Reputation: Human Rights in Conflict”, has now been published in the American University International Law Review, Vol. 26, No. 1, 183-236.

The article is available on the website of the journal. It’s free of charge, so if you are interested, get it while it’s hot! Direct link: here.

Comments on the article, below this post or via e-mail, are more than welcome!

The abstract:

Ever since the European Court of Human Rights has recognised the existence of a right to protection of reputation under the European Convention on Human Rights, a conflict between Convention rights arises in defamation cases. In such situations of conflict between human rights, their indivisibility requires that both rights carry a priori equal weight. Yet, the research conducted for this article indicates that the Court engages in preferential framing and incomplete reasoning when attempting to resolve the conflict between freedom of expression and the right to reputation in its defamation case law. In order to pre-empt such preferential framing and to improve the reasoning of the Court, the article proposes a theoretical model for the resolution of conflicts between human rights. The defamation jurisprudence of the Court is critically analysed through the lens of this model. The article demonstrates how the model might prove to be a useful tool to improve the legal reasoning of the Court in defamation cases.

Mgn Limited v. the United Kingdom: Naomi Campbell v. the Tabloid Press

Mgn Limited v. the United Kingdom concerned several articles published in 2001 in the tabloid Mirror (now Daily Mirror), revealing that supermodel Naomi Campbell was attending Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings in an attempt to treat her drug addiction. The articles were accompanied by several photographs, including one in which Ms. Campbell was seen standing in the street in front of a building as the central figure in a small group, dressed in jeans and wearing a baseball cap. Reportedly having just attended an NA meeting, she was being embraced by two people whose faces had been masked on the photograph. The photograph had been taken by a free-lance photographer contracted by the newspaper for that job. He took the photographs covertly while concealed some distance away in a parked car. Ms. Campbell brought proceeding against the Mirror, claiming a breach of confidentiality.

She won in front of the High Court, but its decision was unanimously reversed by the Court of Appeal. Ms. Campbell consequently brought an appeal in front of the House of Lords. The House of Lords was divided on the issue. It eventually ruled in favour of Ms. Campbell in a 3-2 judgment. All Judges essentially agreed that the publication of Ms. Campbell’s attendance of NA meetings was in the public interest, since she had previously denied taking drugs. The public thus had a right to be informed of the fact that it had been misled by Ms. Campbell. However, the majority of the House of Lords ruled that the publication of the additional information, including the photographs taken of Ms. Campbell leaving NA meetings, was not justified and had breached her privacy rights.

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Haas v. Switzerland and Assisted Suicide

The applicant in Haas v. Switzerland was a 57 years old male who suffered from a bipolar disorder since nearly 20 years. Wishing to commit suicide, Mr. Haas attempted to obtain a lethal substance (sodium pentobarbital) that was only available on medical prescription. To that end, he contacted several psychiatrists, but was not able to obtain a prescription. Mr. Haas filed applications with the domestic authorities to obtain permission to acquire the substance without prescription, but they all rejected his applications, up to the Federal Tribunal, inter alia because his case did not reveal any urgency that would justify departure from the regulatory framework.

Mr. Haas then sent a letter to 170 doctors, requesting their assistance in obtaining a prescription. None replied positively. Some answered that they were not competent to deliver such a prescription, some refused for ethical reasons and others replied that his condition was treatable.

Mr. Haas subsequently filed an application with the European Court of Human Rights, complaining of a violation of his right to respect for his private life. He argued that, due to the domestic courts’ decisions, his right to decide the moment and the manner of his death had not been respected. He maintained that, in exceptional circumstance, such as his, access to the necessary substances should be provided by the State.

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Contradictions in Defamation Cases

Before its holiday break, the European Court of Human Rights released two judgments in defamation cases, Novaya Gazeta V Voronezhe v. Russia and Sofranschi v. Moldova. Both cases concern allegations of abuse and irregularities. While both judgments contain good elements, in my opinion they also reveal faulty reasoning on the part of the Court. Most interestingly, the judgments contradict each other on some crucial points. Thus one judgment provides alternatives to the shortcomings of the other.

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A., B. and C. v. Ireland: Abortion and the Margin of Appreciation

A., B. and C. v. Ireland concerned three Irish applicants who, in their first trimester of pregnancy, had travelled to England to have an abortion because they believed they would not be allowed to have one in Ireland.

The Irish Constitution, unlike the European Convention on Human Rights, explicitly extends the right to life to the unborn foetus. Abortion is moreover prohibited under the criminal law by section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (“the 1861 Act”) providing as penalty “penal servitude for life”. However, this does not mean that abortion constitutes a criminal act in all circumstances in Ireland. The 1861 legislation needs to be read in light of the amended Irish Constitution, which states in Article 40.3.3: “3° The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right; This subsection shall not limit freedom to travel between the State and another state; This subsection shall not limit freedom to obtain or make available, in the State, subject to such conditions as may be laid down by law, information relating to services lawfully available in another state.”

However, no legislation or other regulatory measures have been adopted to clarify what is meant by the “equal right to life of the mother” and in which situations there is a real and substantial risk to that right to life such as to outweigh the right to life of the unborn foetus.

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Church Sexual Abuse in Belgium: Respecting Privacy or Punishing Those Responsible?

In a previous post, Alexandra wrote about sexual abuse by members of the Church and possibly relevant case-law of the European Court of Human Rights. I will follow up on that post in this one.

The past week, the Belgian authorities have upped the ante in the fight against sexual abuse by members of the Catholic Church. An investigative judge ordered house searches in several buildings, including a cathedral, belonging to the Church. During the searches, the police looked for evidence of knowledge of – and thus, attempts to hide – the sexual abuse by the Church. They also seized the 475 personal files of victims that had reported their abuse to the so-called Commission Adriaenssens. The Commission had been set up by the Church itself as an organ of independent experts that would examine the sexual abuse by members of the Church in Belgium. Following the search and the confiscation of the files, the Commission decided to disband since it felt it could no longer fulfil its task. The President of the Commission expressed outrage over what he called a violation of the victims’ privacy. Members of the Church, going as high up as the Vatican itself, expressed similar outrage over the searches. The Vatican described these as worse than the practices during the Communist regimes. But also the victims whose files had been confiscated did not go unheard. One victim filed a complaint with the investigative authorities, claiming to be disadvantaged by their actions, in order to get insight into the files and closer involvement in the procedures. Other victims have joined together to, now that the Commission Adriaenssens has disbanded, demand a Parliamentary investigation into the crimes of sexual abuse by Church members.

The various reactions reveal that the house searches, and especially the seizure of the personal files of the victims that had stepped forward, pose difficult issues. I would divide the complaints into two different categories. The complaints of the Church and the Vatican about the manner in which the searches were conducted constitute the first category. The complaints of the Commission and the victims about the violation of the victims’ privacy constitute the second. I will discuss these in turn.

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Petrina v Romania – serious issues of interpretation and implementation of the Convention

Today, we are pleased to announce a guest post by Dragoş Bogdan* and Mihai Selegean**. Their post on the consequences of the defamation case Petrina v. Romania (14 October 2008, App. no. 78060/01) represents a welcome addition to some of our own posts on the Court’s defamation case-law. More information on the authors, who we thank warmly for their interesting contribution to our blog, can be found at the bottom of the post. Naturally, as is the case with all posts on our blog, the views expressed in the contribution reflect the personal opinion of the authors.


The Petrina Judgment raises several serious questions with respect to the interpretation and the implementation of the Convention, as follows:

–     It transforms the right of the Member States to sanction the excessive exercise of the freedom of expression (in accordance with Article 10) into an obligation to sanction (according to Article 8 ) and

–     It annihilates the margin of appreciation of the Member States as a result of the way in which it defines the conditions that give rise to the positive obligation of the States to sanction the abusive exercise of the freedom of expression (in particular the burden of proof and the factual basis)

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