For the first time in France since the ECJ’s Costeja v. Google case, the balance has tipped in favor of the public’s right to know in two recent court decisions rendered in urgent proceedings targeting respectively Google Inc. and an online newspaper.
Toulouse Court Decision
On January 21, 2015, the Toulouse civil court refused to order Google Inc. to de-index from search results certain links to news articles, holding that:
- The links direct to information regarding the plaintiff’s dismissal and therefore his professional life, not his private life;
- Such information is by nature public as the dismissal resulted in a court decision rendered publicly, subsequently published and receiving extensive media coverage due to the facts at hand, harassment by plaintiff, i.e., questionable professional behavior; and
- The facts date from 2011.
The fact that a judicial proceeding is still pending with respect to the dismissal is irrelevant and does not prove that the contentious information is inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive.
Based on the foregoing, the Toulouse civil court ruled that Google Inc. demonstrated the public’s predominant interest in having access to the contentious information, justifying Google Inc.’s decision to refuse de-indexing.
The outcome would have certainly been different if, like in a September 2014 decision rendered by the Paris civil court (see here for another blog post on this topic), the plaintiff could have relied on a judgment recognizing the defamatory nature of the contentious information, and therefore its inaccuracy.
It is worth mentioning that the Toulouse civil court confirmed that Google France, which was the original defendant in this case, may not be held liable as it does not operate the Google search engine.
Paris Court Decision
On March 23, 2015, the Paris civil court refused to order a French news website to remove or anonymize a December 2014 article announcing that charges for rape against the plaintiff had been dropped. The court considered that such information, including the name, age and profession of the plaintiff, was of public interest in that it concerned:
- The functioning of the judicial system and how serious crimes against individuals are handled; and
- A professional working with the public and in particular with children.
This decision is especially interesting in that it is the first time a French court has applied the ECJ’s Costeja v. Google case to a news website, instead of the usual search engine. It is not however the first case of its kind in Europe. For example, on September 25, 2014, the Liege (Belgium) court of appeals ordered a newspaper to anonymize a 1994 article relating a DUI accident because the driver had been rehabilitated.
Although these two decisions were rendered in urgent proceedings and not on the merits, they are further examples of how local judges are applying the ECJ’s ruling in favor of the freedom of expression and the right to know.