Thursday, February 19, 2015

Well that was not bright

The Apostolic Commissioner, who has never exactly smelled of roses, claims that recent reporting on the status of a lawsuit between himself and the Manelli family contained material misstatements. When one reports on a defamation case, it might behoove one to get the facts straight.

Now, I don't read Italian, so while I can click through the links from Rorate's original post on the topic back to the source at "Don Camillo's" blog, I cannot verify whether the translation of Fr. Volpi's most recent letter on the topic is an accurate summary of the original article. Notably, it does not track what Rorate itself originally posted: the new letter by Fr. Volpi quotes the original writer as claiming he "was sentenced." I do not see this phrase in Rorate's original piece (at least, it's not there now: I'm not digging through caches and the wayback machine to see what was originally there; apparently the original source has admitted that "sentenced" was a mistake, assuming Google Translate gives an accurate sense).

A few thoughts:
  1. In the United States, the truth is an absolute defense to a defamation action.1
  2. Also in the United States, a public figure can prevail in a defamation action only by showing "'actual malice'---that is, [that the statement was made] with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not."2
  3. European law is less protective of speech in general; the truth has not traditionally been an absolute defense and apparently remains not-a-defense in Italy.3
  4. Thus, one can see why, perhaps, Fr. Volpi might have negotiated a settlement while still maintaining that his statement regarding the Manelli family "was no lie, and could easily be verified."4 In Italy, the truth of the statement is not a guaranty of victory at trial.
  5. At the same time, it would be very unusual for one to enter into a settlement agreement that contained an actual admission of wrongdoing. Most settlement agreements expressly disclaim any such admission.
  6. That the settlement was confirmed by a court order is not implausible, though: even in the U.S. a settlement may be incorporated into a final consent judgment. Since the settlement in the Volpi case was purportedly negotiated in court-ordered mediation, it would not be outside the realm of reasonableness for that to have occurred.
  7. The defamation knife cuts both ways, of course: regarding Fr. Volpi's claim to be preparing a lawsuit of his own and rescission of the settlement agreement, one can say (a) that Rorate, to the extent its writers are situated in the U.S., is probably immune from any liability for its February 16, 2015, post, as Fr. Volpi is almost certainly a public or limited-public figure and Rorate's publication is unlikely to qualify as actually malicious; (b) that Don Camillo's potential liability would be governed by Italian law, which may be less forgiving; and (c) that while mileage may vary in Italy, Fr. Volpi would be unlikely to have grounds to rescind the settlement agreement under American legal principles unless the Don Camillo figure were under the Manelli family's control or he wrote what he did as a result of some conduct by them prohibited under the agreement.
P.S. (Feb. 23, 2015): It might go without saying, but in case it does not, my thoughts here are not on the merits of the Manelli suit against Fr. Volpi, nor of Fr. Volpi's claims against the Manelli family or anyone else. Opining on the merits would require knowledge of the true facts, which I lack. As for the matter in general, Fr. Volpi is the principal agent in what is, from all appearances, the profoundly unjust oppression of the F.F.I., a role for which he deserves opprobrium. That is true regardless of what legal claims he or anyone else might have.

1  See New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 271 (1964).
2  Id. at 279--80.
3  International Press Institute, Key Findings: Defences in Defamation Cases, (last accessed February 19, 2015).
4  Was the statement true? Who knows; I have no way of knowing and it is beyond my purposes here to consider the question.

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