Be it in public or private debates, the online defamation or assassination of character and the violation of rights relating to personality, exposed to the wider public, have become commonplace these days. That is why it is worth knowing our legal options, should we be subjected to such grievances.
In its decision no. 303/2019. (II. 13.), the Constitutional Court expressed its opinion on a criminal case concerning the online debate between two public figures, known for their rather outspoken and blunt style, Péter Hajdú and Róbert Puzsér. The case was triggered by a Facebook post, in which Mr. Puzsér used the phrase “pile of shit” to describe Mr. Hajdú. After a court hearing Puzsér was found guilty of character assassination. The court stated that although Puzsér had the right to express his criticism of the personality and actions of Hajdú as a public figure, the phrase “pile of shit” had nothing to do with discussing public affairs. The criticism completely disregarded Hajdú’s human dignity, therefore it was deemed defamatory. This verdict was only the starting point of a legal dispute, which was then taken to the Constitutional Court.
The subject of the Constitutional Court’s decision, analysed in this blog entry, is the character assassination committed during the abovementioned criminal case and allegedly repeated by Puzsér’s posting of his video commentary of the trial. To be more exact, Puzsér repeated the contested phrases, including the words “pile of shit” at court and posted the video of the speech for the defence online, where he discussed at length why in his opinion the phrase objected to is allowed by freedom of speech.
Hajdú responded by filing another criminal case under private prosecution against Puzsér for the latter’s words used during the first criminal case and in the footage posted online, which Hajdú took as defamatory. The case was dismissed by the final ruling of the Metropolitan Court of Budapest.
The reason for this was that according to the Metropolitan Court, Puzsér did not say those words just for the sake of saying them; instead he expressed his opinion and put forward his defence on the phrases that had been made the subject of the case, so his act was not unlawful. Puzsér, as a public figure, talked about an ongoing court case, during which he shared the contents of the speech for his defence, therefore he stayed within the boundaries of the freedom of expression.
The constitutional complaint
Mr. Hajdú turned to the Constitutional Court. According to the constitutional complaint, by dismissing the case, the court had violated the right to human dignity (Article II, Fundamental Law) and the right to have a person’s good reputation respected (Paragraph (1), Article VI, Fundamental Law). Furthermore, the dismissal also violated another section of the Fundamental Law, according to which the right to freedom of expression may not be exercised with the aim of violating the human dignity of others (Paragraph (4), Article IX, Fundamental Law). The court’s decision to extend Mr. Puzsér’s right to defence representation constitutes the above violations, since it is against the Fundamental Law.
The decision of the Constitutional Court
Naturally, it cannot be disputed that by dismissing the case, the court gave preference to exercising the right to freedom of expression over the right to human dignity and the right to have a person’s good reputation respected. Therefore Hajdú’s rights have been restricted in order to allow Puzsér to exercise his right to freedom of expression. The Constitutional Court had to weigh up the necessity and proportionality if this restriction.
In terms of the right to human dignity, Constitutional Court decision no. 7/2014. (III.7.) has already shown that the only instance when the right to human dignity may not be restricted is when it is considered the legal determinant of the human status, while restrictions may be applied to partial rights, derived from it, such as the right to have a person’s good reputation respected.
In our case the fact that it was a debate between two public figures is of crucial importance. Since this debate was closely followed by the media and was given great publicity, it can be considered a public debate. The relevance of the above lies in the fact that pursuant to Paragraph (1), Article IX of the Fundamental Law, a party taking part in a public debate as a public figure is obliged to tolerate any criticism of him or her. Obviously, there is a clear-cut Constitutional Court practice in this regard, according to which there is an essential and protected part of human dignity, which must be respected by any critic at all times during such debates (Constitutional Court decision no. 3122/2014. (IV. 24.)). This protected domain of human dignity is violated if it is specifically targeted by the expression of an opinion, in other words, when the critic denies or doubts the human nature of the affected party. According to this principle, in the first court case identifying someone as a “pile of shit” constitutes a defamatory action.
In the second case, however, the Constitutional Court decided to dismiss the constitutional complaint in spite of the fact that Mr. Puzsér used the descriptive term “pile of shit” as an epithet repeatedly. What is the difference between the two situations, when the parties and the derogatory phrase are the same?
Compared to the first case, in which Puzsér was found guilty of defamation of character, the second case differs in terms of the aim of the communication. Based on the circumstances of the second case, the Constitutional Court found that the aim of the communication was to report on a public debate, therefore this communication was not an end in itself. In the court’s opinion, although Puzsér’s report (posting the video of the court hearing and adding his comments) undoubtedly involved “recalling” the defamatory remarks, from a constitutional point of view its aim was to apply the freedom of expression, which is protected by law. In other words, its aim was to explain Puzsér’s position on whether the technical term of “pile of shit” could be used in a public debate and also to share his opinion on the outcome of the case. In this context, the aim of using the phrase ‘”pile of shit” was not an end in itself to attack Hajdú as a human being, but instead to discuss a case in which the public had shown great interest. Hajdú’s right to human dignity and to have his good reputation respected was only restricted to a necessary degree and in necessary proportion by not providing legal protection in the criminal case.
Based on the Constitutional Court decision, concluding the legal debate, we can state that the use of defamatory terms in violation of the right to human dignity does not always constitute character assassination or the violation of the right to have a person’s good reputation respected. When people take part in public debates as public figures, pursuant to Paragraph (1), Article IX of the Fundamental Law they are obliged to tolerate critical and even degrading (and obscene) remarks against them, if such remarks, as part of a public debate, are not considered an end in themselves. However, when expressing our opinion about public figures, we must refrain from using defamatory remarks, which have nothing to do with the public debate and question a person’s human dignity and status, just for the sake of using them.
The case can be also interpreted as Mr. Hajdú now having an official document on what he looks like. At the same time, the classic statement of the Constitutional Court never rang more true: you degrade yourself by using degrading words. We can only hope that the Constitutional Court’s practice of giving a green light to graphic expressions in public debates, which we described above and deem correct, will not encourage public figures to further degrade the standard of public speech by using even harsher language.
Keeping these arguments in mind, whenever we are faced with the disproportionate restriction of the freedom of expression in similar cases, it is worth turning to the Constitutional Court – as we can see, these complaints may be brought to a successful conclusion.