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Iris Erlingsdottir Headshot

"Free Speech" Not So Free

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Icelandic courts have problems with the truth.

In two recent decisions, the Reykjavik district court has, in effect, ruled that truth is not a valid defense to libel. Instead, it ruled that newspapers have a duty not to publish statements about private individuals that would tend to damage their reputations even if they are true and involve matters that many would reasonably believe to be in the public interest.

In one case, the court fined a journalist $11,000* for repeating, in an article regarding an international custody battle, one parent's statement about the other's abuse. In a more recent case, it slapped a $13,000* fine on the same journalist -- whose story, in this case, concerned a neighbor dispute -- for quoting court documents from an earlier case against one of the parties.

Imprisonment For Insulting Your Neighbor
It is hard to believe that only one year ago, with the creation of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), Iceland's Parliament passed a resolution to "strongly position itself legally with regard to the protection of freedoms of expression and information" and "resolves to task the government with finding ways to strengthen freedoms of expression and information freedom in Iceland."

For a country that still imprisons people for insulting their neighbors and bankrupts journalists for quoting public documents and named sources in their stories, this sure is a curious resolution. Obviously Iceland has yet to catch up with its main tenets.

Only Refer To Flattering Facts
In both aforementioned cases, the journalist was: (1) quoting an apparently reliable source (2) about a matter that the newspaper reasonably believed was in the public interest (3) without opining as to the statements' veracity.

What is it, exactly, that the courts expect journalists to do? Avoid stories that reflect poorly upon private individuals? Will the newspaper need to remove a story about a football match in which a goalie error costs his team the game, because the goalie's reputation as a competent player will be placed in doubt? Will it have to stop publishing stories about criminal trials that identify the accused, since the accusation will depend on a statement from a private person? Will it be precluded from publishing the names of legislators who voted on bills that ultimately ended up harming the public, since that might cause them to lose credibility?

In the custody case, the mother's quote was included to explain her actions, not to justify them. The story simply is not complete without her statement.

Regarding the second case, the court is right that neighborhood feuds -- one of the unending sources of juicy gossip -- should generally remain private, but once these disputes go beyond mere words to acts of violence, they become matters of public concern. We have laws -- enacted by public bodies, expressing the public will -- outlawing such breaches of the public order. The public documents quoted by the journalist permit the reader to determine for him or herself which side is more likely to be telling the truth. The quote does not damage the parties' reputations, because it is true. The mere fact that the documents are more than 20 years only goes to the weight that the readers should assign to them.

"Good Taste" Is What The Court Has...
According to the court, it was "in extremely bad taste" for the journalist to refer to the "judgment that plaintiff received in 1989..." which "is of no public interest today and contributes nothing to the article as far as discussing the plaintiff, except to blacken her reputation."

A true statement cannot hurt a person's reputation. No one deserves to have a reputation based on an incomplete knowledge of the past. If everyone believes that X is a wonderful father, but is told the true statement that he abuses his children, his reputation will suffer. But X never deserved -- never owned -- the good reputation to begin with. If everyone praises X's reputation because they are not aware of the inconvenient truth, it's because X's reputation is based on a lie. That the courts should consider it their job to protect such a lie is preposterous.

The "Right" Kind of Speech
Article 14 of Iceland's proposed constitutional bill says that everyone „has the right to ... the expression of his thoughts." That right is worthless if it doesn't protect the expression of facts on which those thoughts are based.

According to the same Article, government shall „guarantee conditions that are conducive to open and informed public discussion." Public discussion, however, cannot be „informed" unless it is based on true statements - facts. The article is thus meaningless grandiloquence when it comes to the courts. Apparently, the only public discussion that Icelandic courts will tolerate is one that doesn't upset the judges' personal taste standards and conforms to their elitist ideas of what the rest of us should be allowed to see.

Iceland's IMMI posturing -- which by the way earned it much undeserved good reputation around the globe -- is the height of hypocrisy. Considering the country's shameful judicial record on free speech, IMMI's proposal to designate Iceland "a global safe haven for investigative journalism," an "international transparency haven" is like crowning Burma the world's human rights haven.

Ironically, the parliamentary resolution proposes to establish "The Icelandic Freedom of Expression Award." This is an excellent idea. I suggest that the prize be dedicated and awarded to the journalists whom Icelandic courts have fined out of house and home for simply trying to do their jobs. ■

*Includes plaintiff's legal costs