The Constitutional Court clarified the system of criteria for establishing the quality of acting as a public figure10 May 2018
The Constitutional Court made a decision in a public debate of media personalities. As underlined in the Court’s decision: due to the changes in social relations, in particular the proliferation of telecommunication, the scope of public figures is expanding, thus persons who were not considered as public figures earlier can now become active influencers of debates in public affairs. The freedom of expression primarily protects the expressions of opinion connected to criticising public authority, but the scope of public affairs is wider than political communications in the narrow sense. Establishing the quality of acting as a public figure is always a question of individual assessment. The determining criterion is typically not the status of the affected person but whether he has become an influencer of public life in an open debate in public affairs due to his own decision.
The petitioner who submitted the constitutional complaint to the Constitutional Court and who was at the same time the paintiff of the underlying case is a widely known person who produces programmes with a significant audience rate, discussing social issues that affect questions of public affairs. The plaintiff filed a claim against the defendant – who is also well known nation-wide – because in a social media portal the defendant criticised the programs made by the plaintiff by making the following comments: the plaintiff is a “psychopath” who obtained public television contracts “amid obscure circumstances” and the lawsuits started by him because of the criticism of his public affair activities is a “legal terror by a media-psychopath”. Both the court of first instance rejecting the claim and the court of second instance agreed that the case concerned the legal debate of two public figures, the challenged communications qualified as expressions of opinion and they did not form the basis of a violation of personality rights, in particular with due regard to the fact that public figures should tolerate more in the scope of expressing opinions. The petitioner assumed in his constitutional complaint – among others – that the courts were mistaken in qualifying him as a public figure with an increased obligation of tolerance as he is not a politician and he does not exercise any public authority.
The Constitutional Court underlined in it decision: the freedom of expression is a constitutional value that deserves priority protection. It is a lesson learnt from history that the restriction of the freedom of expression entails harmful social consequences.
The Constitutional Court holds that the following constitutional aspects need to be examined along with the careful assessment of the concrete circumstances in order to be able to decide about the limits of the obligation of tolerance expectable from a person affected in a debate in public affairs: whether the public communication expressing the opinion reflects a position articulated in a debate of public interest, whether it affects any public action and whether the communication contains a statement of facts or a value judgement. Finally it should be assessed wether the public communication violated the human dignity or the reputation of the person concerned.
The Constitutional Court established in the present case that the challenged judicial decisions had expressed the relevant constitutional criteria therefore it rejected the constitutional complaint. Judges Dr. Ildikó Marosi dr. Hörcherné and Dr. Balázs Schanda attached concurring opinions to the decision.