LONDON — An ex-car racing boss who sued a tabloid over a story about his sadomasochistic orgy with dominatrixes lost his privacy case Tuesday in the European Court of Human Rights – a ruling applauded by free speech advocates.
Max Mosley won a lawsuit against Britain's News of the World tabloid for its 2008 front-page story claiming he, the president of the governing body overseeing Formula One racing, had an hours-long Nazi-themed orgy with five women. Mosley, the son of a former fascist leader, acknowledged the orgy but denied the Nazi theme.
Despite winning sizable damages and legal costs, Mosley didn't stop fighting.
He then took the case to the European court in France, which can intervene in British court rulings. Mosley claimed that his privacy rights, which are protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, should force news organizations to notify subjects before publishing details about their private lives.
But the court disagreed, saying European law didn't require pre-notification and that such a requirement could have a chilling effect on freedom of speech.
"I am disappointed at today's judgment, because I think that there is widespread recognition that privacy is fundamental to the way we live our lives," said Mosley, who plans to ask the court's grand chamber in Strasbourg to reconsider its decision.
But free speech advocates were heartened.
"This is very welcome news for the media," said lawyer Robin Shaw. "The obligation to give prior notification would not have been restricted to stories about the sexual behavior of people in the public eye, such as Mr. Mosley, but would potentially have embraced any story about an individual, however seemingly innocuous."
Privacy has become the latest buzz word in Britain, where scores of celebrities and sports figures have been granted recent injunctions or gag orders to prevent media from publishing the details of their extramarital affairs.
But those very injunctions became obsolete this week when a Twitter user made an anonymous post naming many of the men who were granted the gag orders, including a married soccer star who allegedly had a fling with a topless model and a well-known married British actor who had sex with a prostitute.
U.S.-registered sites are largely exempt from British gag orders because they fall outside the court's jurisdiction.
Freedom of speech in the United States is protected under the First Amendment and often trumps privacy arguments. European law protects both privacy and freedom of expression, but it is often left to interpretation by judges.
In Britain, the parents of Prince William's new bride, Kate Middleton, also recently complained to the Press Complaints Commission after tabloids published photos of Kate and her sister Pippa Middleton wearing bikinis off the coast of the Spanish island of Ibiza.
In Britain, more than 30 public figures have won gag orders since 2008. In France, too, privacy is considered sacred, and editors there long shied away from reporting that former President Francois Mitterand had an illegitimate daughter.
But the questions go beyond privacy. Mosley said his tabloid sex tale offered little to no public interest value, but some say the same argument could have applied to Tiger Woods, whose image as a squeaky clean role model was tarnished after reports of widespread infidelities.
Had Mosley won, the ruling also could have also forced non-governmental organizations to warn people before publishing details of investigations.
The human rights group Global Witness, for example, was sued by the president of the Republic of Congo's son in 2007, who wanted it to remove documents from their web site that showed he had been using state oil revenues to find his posh lifestyle. The group ultimately won the case and were awarded costs but it was a lengthy process. Had they been required to warn the son first, the details may have never come to light.
"What we have in Europe is a very broad interpretation of privacy, which has serious ramifications for freedom of speech," said Jo Glanville of the London-based Index on Censorship.
On the net: http://www.echr.coe.int/echr/