(Court of Milan, Ruling no. 3967/2014 of 03.21.2014, Judge Dorigo Amanda Marie Knox v. RCS Mediagroup et al.)
A few weeks after the Florence Courts of Assizes, in yet another twist in a legal case that’s been going on for seven years, found Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito guilty of the murder of Meredith Kercher, another ruling on the same case was filed in Milan, well away from the spotlight. This was in civil proceedings.
The judgment in question is in fact a by-product of the criminal proceedings, as it tackles the media coverage of the latter, and the difficult balance between the right to information and the right to privacy of the individuals concerned. It seems ironic that that the one decision that directly concerns the publicity hype around the Knox case has gone almost ignored by the media.
Although the violent death of a human being is an incomparably more serious business than a privacy breach, the Milan ruling addresses issues of no small importance: do those accused of serious crimes have a lesser right to privacy than others? How far can the media coverage of a famous criminal case go?
One thing the proceedings in Milan and those held a few hundred kilometres to the south had in common was their troubled course, bouncing between lower and higher courts. The proceedings in Milan began in December 2008, when Amanda Knox – at the time in pre-trial custody for the Kercher murder – filed a civil complaint against RCS Mediagroup, proprietor of the Milan-based daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, the editor in chief of the same newspaper, the publishing house RCS Libri and the journalist F. S.
Ms Knox complained that excerpts of her personal diary – which was part of the criminal trial file and had become available to the public – listing the names of her sexual partners and containing details about her sex life and personal inclinations, had been published in two press articles and in a book authored by the journalist. She claimed that these publications constituted the unlawful processing of her sensitive personal data and sought compensation for moral damages.
The court of first instance granted Ms Knox’s requests, holding that the defendants had exceeded the limits of freedom of information. The defendants, however, appealed the ruling before the Court of Cassation, which found that it did not provide adequate grounds for the decision. The Court of Cassation thus referred the proceedings back to the Milan court, requiring it to re-evaluate the case in light of the rules governing privacy and journalism set out by the Italian 2003 Data Protection Code and the annexed journalism code of ethics.
Specifically, the Court of Cassation pointed to Article 137 paragraph 3 of the Data Protection Code, which, in the matter of dissemination or disclosure of personal information for journalistic purposes, establishes the limit of the “essentiality of the information with regard to facts of public interest”, and of Articles 5, 6 and 11 of the journalism code of ethics, which specify that limit by allowing for the disclosure of detailed personal information when it is “indispensable” with regard to the originality of the facts, or to the description of the particular ways in which they occurred, or to the quality of the individuals involved.
The defendants had argued from the outset that the detailed reporting of the sensitive personal data of the applicant was essential with respect to the peculiarity of the events she was involved in, and the particular ways in which they had unfolded. But the referred judge was of a different opinion, and found that the application of the above principles in the case supported Ms Knox’s claims.
In explaining her decision, the judge observed first that the public relevance of the events in question was undeniable and that, in principle, the issue of Ms Knox’s love life and sex life was in fact relevant to the murder trial in which she stood accused: the murder, according to the indictment, had been committed in the context of a sexual assault by one of the co-defendants in the presence of the others. In other words, the sexual element underlined the events and Ms Knox’s values of choice in her sexual relationships could be considered relevant to the description and understanding of the context in which the murder had taken place.
However, in the judge’s view the author’s standpoint – that the troubled upbringing of the applicant had resulted in the unbalanced management of her relationships and sexual freedoms, which was consistent with the emotional context in which the murder of Meredith Kercher had occurred – could have been developed without exposing details on the number and type of the applicant’s sexual relations, as well as the sensitive personal data of third parties that were strangers to the facts; even more so considering that this personal information, time- and place-wise, was completely unrelated to the crime scene.
The exposure of this personal information had not contributed, according to the judge, to the historical reconstruction of the events or to their understanding, nor had it shed more light on the personality of Ms Knox beyond simply relaying the idea of a misuse of her sexual freedom. Such exposure was, therefore, inessential with respect to the purpose of reporting and understandable only as a means of arousing the morbid excitement of the readers.
In her extensive reasoning, the judge pointed out that it would not be acceptable to “… lower the bar for intrusion into the personal life of inviduals in proportion to the hype around the facts”, otherwise the essentiality and relevance of the information disclosed would be disconnected from the objective public relevance of the story, and instead “… linked to the volatile curiosity of readers and, more importantly, bent to economic interests, or interests of another nature, pursued by the media…”. This would raise the danger of “triggering a self-referential (and self-absolutory) media circuit” in particular the risk of “legitimising tabloid press campaigns merely aimed at cashing out …. thus allowing the processing of sensitive or even super-sensitive data of having the sole purpose of feeding and keeping alive the public interest, not in proportion to the objective social significance of the facts and the corresponding right to their knowledge, but in light of unworthy interests…”.
The judge remarked that nothing in the Italian legal system allowed for linking the right to the protection of personal data to such a variable factor as media attention, potentially independent of the values protected.
She finally commented that the publicity of court documents does not allow per se the indiscriminate publication of the information they contain; journalists are still required at all times to filter those contents in compliance with the standards for the protection of fundamental rights set in the Privacy Code and their own code of ethics.
On the basis of the above, the judge concluded that the sensitive personal data of Ms Knox had been unduly disseminated and that she had suffered moral damage as a result. She therefore ordered all the defendants jointly to compensate Ms Knox for damages (liquidated on an equitable basis) and legal expenses.
Unless this ruling is reversed once again on appeal, it will be a sure point of reference in cases of potential conflict between crime journalism and the right to privacy, and these days there is no shortage of such conflicts.