February 18, 2006
First case of regional discrimination ends in mediated settlement
What was reported to be China's first lawsuit against discrimination on the grounds of regional origin was settled through court mediation earlier this month. (News report here.) The case began in March, 2005, when a local station of the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau hung up large banners over the streets calling for vigilance against "Henan Extortion Gangs" and offering rewards for information on them.
The story was picked up in the Southern Metropolitan News (南方都市报) (obliquely referred to in the above story as "a certain southern newspaper, perhaps because of its political difficulties). From there, it came to the attention of two lawyers (who else?) in Henan, who took offense and brought suit in Zhengzhou. They claimed that hanging the banners not only violated Art. 33 of the Constitution providing for equality before the law, but also damaged the reputation and good name of all people in and from Henan. (The news reports cite no statutory reference other than the Constitution.) They requested an apology from the police, made in a national newspaper.
The report does not spell this out clearly, but it seems they did not get their wish: apparently the police apologized to the plaintiffs only, and were not required to apologize in a national newspaper. But the police had apparently already apologized at a news conference held in May, 2005; the plaintiffs were not satisfied with this precisely because no national newspapers had been invited.
Despite one's distaste for such an egregiously bigoted method of crime-fighting (not only bigoted, but misguided - do the police not mind extortion gangs from other provinces?), it's not clear to me that the plaintiffs should have won this case. The practical effect would have been yet another judicial endorsement of limitations on speech; while libelous speech in most countries enjoys few protections, here the standard justifications have much less force. Perhaps the embarrassment and bad publicity suffered by the police force is the best sanction under the circumstances.
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