Criminal defamation: necessity or menace?

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Author: Aleksandr Kul'nev

DOI: 10.21128/1812-7126-2016-4-59-72

Keywords: flicting rights; freedom of expression; freedom of speech; limits of rights; reputation


The vast majority of countries in the world have criminal defamation laws on the books. These are intended to resolve the conflict between two fundamental constitutional rights: that of freedom of expression, and that to defend one’s honor and good name (or reputation). In order to adjudicate such conflicts, legislators can choose between two approaches. They may consider one of conflicting rights more important to be protected while sacrificing the other. Alternatively, they may attempt to balance both rights, putting minimal restrictions on each. The idea underlying the first approach is often the implicit rationale for criminal defamation laws. An example in point could be arguments presented by members of the Russian parliament in supporting recriminalization of defamation in 2012. Prohibiting circulation of libelous information is justified solely on the basis of the evaluated damage it could inflict on someone’s reputation, taking no account of the consequences for freedom of expression. This approach is at odds with the very essence of constitutionalism, which requires that governments should protect all civil liberties at all times, not just those which seem important in any given situation. In contrast, the idea underlying the second approach – “balancing” – makes difficult justifying the criminalization of libel, especially when there is the availability of civil lawsuit, a proven and widely-used tool for the protection of reputation. With this in mind, the author of this article argues that criminalizing defamation is more likely to make problems for the system of civil liberties and constitutional rights than to support a satisfactory rights balance within it.

Citation: Kul'nev A. (2016) Kriminalizatsiya klevety: neobkhodimost' ili ugroza? [Criminal defamation: necessity or menace?]. Sravnitel'noe konstitutsionnoe obozrenie, no.4, pp.59–72. (In Russian).


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