In a recent ruling, the District Court of Rome addressed an increasingly popular topic: the balance between freedom of the press and the right to privacy (we addressed the topic, for example, here).
M.M., a senior citizen, had been the victim of a street crime in her own town. The next day, the local newspaper ran an article on the story in both its print and online editions, identifying the victim by name and providing details about the emergency medical care she underwent as a result of the crime. The online piece was indexed almost immediately by the main search engines. Despite a cease-and-desist letter sent by M.M.’s counsel to the newspaper’s publisher and chief editor, the article remained on the Web for several months (only to be removed when the lawsuit was already underway).
M.M. jointly sued the newspaper’s publisher and editor-in-chief and the author of the disputed article before the Court of Rome, claiming that, by needlessly identifying her in the published story, the defendants had violated her right to protection of personal information, including sensitive data, and requesting an injunction and compensation for non-pecuniary damages. The alleged damages consisted in anxiety and distress caused by the exposure of her story and her role as a victim, exacerbated by the subsequent morbid curiosity of acquaintances and fellow citizens, and aggravated by the persisting accessibility of the story on the Web.
The defendants pleaded that their conduct was covered by freedom of the press laws and argued that the pain and suffering of the claimant was unproven.
The appointed Judge ruled in favour of the claimant, finding the defendants jointly and severally liable for breach of privacy rights and ordering them to compensate the former for non-pecuniary damages and legal fees and expenses.
The Judge noted that, under the Italian Data Protection Code and the Code of Conduct concerning the processing of personal data in the context of press activities, the freedom of the press to report news of public interest may be limited by individuals’ right to privacy; that limit is defined by assessing the essentiality of the personal information disclosed with respect to the facts reported. In the specific case at hand, the Judge found, there was a vested public interest in the knowledge of the crime, but the name of the victim was inessential to its coverage; the facts did not present any specific elements that would justify precisely identifying her as opposed to using initials.
With respect to damages, the Judge found that the anxiety and distress suffered by the defendant as a result of the exposure of her misadventure and of her role as the victim – described, moreover, as frail and elderly – was adequately proven by her relatives’ testimony on her emotional state following the publication of the news. In settling damages on an equitable basis, the Judge took into account the nature of the personal information disclosed, the dissemination of the same and the fact that the online article had been taken down with unjustified delay after the request of the claimant’s counsel.