On June 4, 2019, the Corte di Cassazione, the Italian Supreme Court, clarified the scope of the right of the public to be informed (also known as public right’s to know) in relation to the right of the individual to be forgotten with reference to old news, which are being republished after many years.
In this case, a man was convicted of man slaughtering his wife. Twenty-seven years after the crime, the facts were reported by a local newspaper of the city where the facts occurred.
The man sued the journalist for violation of his right to be forgotten, seeking damages.
The Court of first instance denied the request and found that there was no violation of the right to be forgotten since the facts were included in a chronicle of the most relevant facts that happened in that specific area and there was a right of the public be informed.
The court of Appeal agreed with the court of first instance.
The man postured that it was a violation of his right to be forgotten to have the news attaining the crime republished with his details so that it was easy to trace his identity. He committed a crime, he paid for it, and had been working to be reintegrated in the society. The publication compromised his reintegration and affected his dignity.
The Italian Supreme Court upheld the appeal, dismissed the judgement and returned it to the lower court to be decided according to the following principles of law.
The Supreme Court explained that the journalist that republishes news that – at one point in time – were of public interest is not exercising a right to inform but is carrying out a historical re-enactment of those facts. It might happen that something may cause the news to returns current, but if this is not the case (as here), bringing up old news, even if very relevant at the time of their occurrence, is a historiographical activity that cannot enjoy the same constitutional protection granted to the right to inform the public.
The historical re-enactment is important: it retraces facts and characters. However, unless the reenactment concerns individuals who have played and still play a public role or whose identity is key to understand the facts, it must be carried out anonymously because no benefit can be drawn from the identification of the perpetrator.
The interest in knowing a fact, which is an expression of the right to inform and be informed, “does not necessarily imply the existence of a similar interest in knowing the identity of the individual that accomplished that fact.”
The Supreme Court also highlighted how the publisher’s decision to publish, on a weekly basis, over a certain period of time, the historical reconstruction of a series of crimes that struck a community cannot be questioned. It is an exercise of the right of free press. However, the courts have the power to check the existence of a qualified interest in referring to the identity of the person that participated in those old events. The personal identification that at one point had an obvious importance, may now – once time has passed and the collective memory has faded – have become irrelevant for the public opinion.
In general, there is a duty to avoid the dissemination to the public of information concerning the personal identity of individuals unless there is a renewed public interest in the facts or the protagonists held or holds functions that make them a publicly figure.