Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Supreme People's Court Website: No Liability for Inappropriate Speech Directed at Historical Nihilists

On October 19, 2016, China's Supreme People's Court published a piece on its website entitled "People's Courts Come to the Defense of the 'Five Heroes of Wolf Tooth Mountain' and Other Model Cases Involving the Right of Human Dignity of Heroic Figures" (人民法院依法保护“狼牙山五壮士”等英雄人物人格权益典型案例). 

This blog previously summarized two of the four cases discussed in the article:
  • A Dispute Wherein Huang Zhong and Hong Zhenkuai Sue Mei Xinyu for Infringing Their Right to Reputation
  • A Dispute Wherein Huang Zhong and Hong Zhenkuai Sue Guo Songmin for Infringing Their Right to Reputation
See: Courts Hold Referring to Historical Nihilists as "Sons of Bitches" is Not Defamatory

The SPC website article began by going over the facts of each case, which are summarized here:
  • In its November 2013 edition the journal Yanhuang Chunqiu (炎黄春秋) published an article entitled “Inconsistent Details in the 'Five Heroes of Wolf Tooth Mountain” (狼牙山五壮士”的细节分歧). The article was authored by Hong Zhenkuai (洪振快) and edited by Huang Zhong (黄钟).
  • On November 23, 2013, Mei Xinyu (梅新育) posted the following statement on his verified Sina Weibo:
"What is motivating the editors and writers at 'Yanhuang Chunqiu'? Couldn't dig up a turnip to eat during a time of war? Is it too polite to say these kinds of writers and authors are sons of bitches?"
  • The same day, Guo Songmin (郭松民) reposted Mei’s post and added the following comment on his verified Sina Weibo:
Oppose historical nihilism, if nothing is done about this gang of sons of bitches its a joke!
  • In March 2014, Huang and Hong sued Mei and Guo for defamation in separate lawsuits. Huang and Hong lost.
The SPC website article then provided the following explanations for why these cases were “model.”

Mei Xinyu
This case is a model case of infringement of the right to reputation arising from weibo statements evaluating a third party's article. What makes this case a model case is that the defendant's statements were evaluations and criticisms directed at an article by the plaintiffs regarding the historical heroic figures and historical events of the "Five Heroes of Wolf Tooth Mountain." Whether or not the defendant's statements exceeded necessary bounds of propriety and infringement upon their personal dignity implicates several factors such as:
  • the matters related in the article published by the plaintiffs;
  • the degree to which the plaintiffs could have foreseen the criticisms and assessments of third parties that the article they published would trigger, and the duty of tolerance that they should bear as a result;
  • the subjective circumstances under which the defendant published their statements;
  • whether or not the statements led to the public holding a lower opinion of the plaintiffs.
These are the major factors to be considered when determining whether the defendant's actions constitute an infringement, and are also the major and difficult issues in cases involving infringement of the right to reputation.

In this case, from the People's Court's analysis of the significant historical meaning of the historical figures and historical incidents implicated in the content of the plaintiff's article, it believed that the plaintiffs bore a relatively high duty of tolerance toward the statements triggered by the article, and relatively correctly defined the duty of care the plaintiffs bore for their own statements. Considering such aspects as the defendant's subjective motivation in publishing their statements and the targets of their criticism, as well as method by which those in the public who read their statements received information and made their assessments of the plaintiffs, the court held that while the defendant's statements were inappropriate, they did not constitute an infringement of rights. This was an accurate and comprehensive application of current law which balanced a party's freedom to act with the safeguarding of the legal rights and interests of others.
Guo Songmin
This case arose from the same article that triggered the case in which Huang Zhong and Hong Zhenkuai sued Mei Xinyu for infringing on their right to reputation. In this case, when the People's Court analyzed whether or not the defendant committed an infringement, it stressed that the people's heroes, heroic deeds and their spirit represented by the "Five Heroes of Wolf Tooth Mountain" have become an important component of the common historical memory of the Chinese people, as well as an important aspect of the Chinese sentiment and spiritual world. The article published by the plaintiffs casts doubts upon the public consensus and mainstream value system, and they should have foreseen the assessments that it would trigger, and they should bear a relatively high duty of tolerance. 

At the same time, the court also conducted a comprehensive evaluation of various facets including the overall new developments brought about by tolerance of statements on Internet media and the social media tools of the Internet era, as well as the subjective nature of, the cause-and-effect relationship of, and damages arising from, the defendant's statements.