Chinese Law Prof Blog

Editor: Donald C. Clarke
George Washington University Law School

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

More on journalism professor's defamation suit against blog host

I previously posted here and here about the suit brought by Prof. Chen Tangfa against the Hangzhou Blog Information Technology Company, owner of the site. Because there's been some interest in this case, I had a research assistant do a translation, which I have revised a bit but which is still in draft form. Nevertheless, I offer it here [Chinese | English] for those who are interested.

At the time I originally posted, I was too busy to look at the decision closely. Now that I've done so, I'm surprised to see that the court actually does not seem to have had a lot of sympathy for Prof. Chen. While the court required the defendant to apologize, it rejected the plaintiff's claim for 10,000 yuan for emotional distress (my loose translation of 精神损害) as well as his claim for 324 yuan in filing fees when he initially filed against the wrong party, giving him only the 1,000 yuan he spent getting a notary to look at the insulting blog post and attest to its existence. It rejected any claim against the defendant for damages caused by the wide discussion of the case in the media (which of course had had the effect of propagating the insulting remarks all over China, and indeed as far as this blog). It required him to share the court costs with the defendant (although he had to pay only 50 yuan out of 260).

In short, by bringing this suit Prof. Chen saw the insults in the blog post (which had in fact been hidden from the public by the defendant at about the same time he filed suit) spread more widely than they ever could otherwise have been, and paid 374 yuan for the privilege (in addition to whatever his legal fees were) - a Pyrrhic victory if there ever was one.

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In England during the 18th and 19th centuries, people would not infrequently bring defamation suits with no expectation of a significant award. They did so because they felt that a court judgement in their favor vindicated them against the slander. Please note that I am not suggesting that Chen is necessarily thinking along these lines. But if he was, then a judicial opinion vindicating of his reputation might not be so Pyrrhic.

Posted by: Mike Dowdle | Nov 30, 2006 3:18:42 AM

I agree with Mike - not only with respect to Merrie Olde England, but also with respect to the modern world. My uneducated guess would be that the proportion of plaintiffs preferring vindication to money is higher in defamation suits than in any other kind, and that we see a lot of what might otherwise be considered economically unjustified suits in this area. My comment about Prof. Chen's Pyrrhic victory was not so much about his lack of economic gain than about what I believe was the counterproductive (from his own perspective) result of the suit. As I see it, unlike the standard defamation plaintiff, he was not trying to disprove false factual allegations about himself. He was instead trying to stop the circulation of comments about himself that he found insulting and humiliating. Because the publicity around his lawsuit resulted in the comments being circulated even more widely, I think that from his own perspective it was a Pyrrhic victory. Of course, as Mike points out, we can't read his mind.

Posted by: Don Clarke | Nov 30, 2006 6:54:47 AM

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