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Economou judgment: broad free speech protection on matters of public concern

Posted on 23 November 2018

Economou judgment: broad free speech protection on matters of public concern

The background to Economou v de Freitas is, as the High Court Judge agreed in July 2016, both striking and tragic. The claimant, Alexander Economou, had a relationship with the daughter of the defendant, David de Freitas. In January 2013, she accused Mr Economou of rape. He was arrested, but not charged, and brought a private prosecution against her - later taken over by the CPS - alleging that she had made false allegations against him with the intent to pervert the court of justice. Ms de Freitas denied the charge and, four days before trial, took her own life. Mr Economou then sued Mr de Freitas in libel over various press statements he made about the conduct of the CPS, which he said amounted to an allegation that he was guilty of rape.

The High Court agreed that the implied meaning of the statements was that there were strong grounds to suspect that Mr Economou was guilty of rape, and had falsely prosecuted Ms de Freitas. But, it also upheld Mr de Freitas' defence of public interest: the statements were on a matter of public interest, and Mr Economou reasonably believed that publishing them was in the public interest. In particular, the Court found that Mr de Freitas' tone was measured and responsible, and that he would have struggled to express his sincere doubts about the conduct of the CPS without impliedly defaming the claimant. To find for Mr Economou would represent "an interference with Mr de Freitas' free speech rights out of any reasonable proportion to the need to protect and vindicate Mr Economou's reputation". Mr Economou appealed and, on Wednesday 21 November, his appeal was dismissed.

Commenting on the Court of Appeal judgment, Mishcon de Reya's Head of Reputation Protection, Emma Woollcott said:

"Economou was the first full trial of the public interest defence in its new statutory form under the Defamation Act 2013. The Court of Appeal has upheld a flexible interpretation of the defence, which reflects - but is not tied to - the old common law "checklist" for responsible journalism. Crucially, it takes into account the particular role of the defendant, and is not confined to the media. Mr de Freitas then, as more of a source or contributor, was held to a lower standard than might be required of a journalist. The decision, while it recognises that mediating between free speech and reputation is never easy, confirms the broad protection for freedom of speech on matters of public concern, including for those who, like Mr de Freitas, speak out on major – and controversial – issues."

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