Tech & Rights

Freedom of Expression Wins Out Over Prince of Monaco's Private Life

The Strasbourg court upholds the freedom of speech of tabloids after they published a story suggesting the Prince of Monaco had fathered a child out of wedlock.

The British weekly Daily Mail published an article in which a woman claimed that Albert Grimaldi, Prince of Monaco, was the father of her son.
The French tabloid behind the original interview was ordered by a national court to pay 50,000 euros after publishing an article suggesting the Prince of Monaco had fathered a child out of wedlock.
The European Court of Human Rights disagreed, ruling that there had been a violation of the papers' right to freedom of expression.

The British tabloid Daily Mail announced on May 3, 2005, a publication in Paris Match, describing key elements of the story — lengthy interview with a woman named Nicole Coste, who claimed that Prince Albert II of Monaco was the father of her child.

On this, Prince Albert asked Paris Match to withdraw the publication. On May 4, 2005, the German weekly Die Bunte also published an interview with Coste.

One day later, also Paris Match published an article with an interview with Mrs. Coste, in which she claimed that Prince Albert was the father of her child. The article was accompanied with a picture of Prince Albert holding the child in his arms.

Ruling against Paris Match

Anne-Marie Couderc is chief editor of Paris Match, a weekly magazine of which Hachette Filipacchi Associés is the publisher.

On May 19, 2005, Prince Albert summoned Hachette Filipacchi Associés before the Nanterre court, where he demanded damages and requested a judicial order to publish the ruling on the Paris Match cover.

In June 2005, the court in Nanterre ruled that Hachette Filipacchi Associés had to pay €50,000 for non-material damages to Prince Albert, as well as the publication of the ruling on the Paris Match cover as a headline, under the title "Court Rules Against Paris Match at Request of Monaco's Prince Albert."

But Couderc and Hachette Filipacchi Associés appealed against this ruling. On July 6, 2005, Prince Albert issued a press release in which he acknowledged he was the child's father. In November 2005, the Versailles Court of Appeal rejected Hachette's appeal against the verdict to pay damages. However, the court amended the conditions relating to the publication of the court ruling on the Paris Match website: the court ruling didn't have to appear as a headline and didn't have not cover the entire cover, but only a third. After bringing an appeal to the Supreme Court, the ruling was upheld in February, 2007.

A complaint to Strasbourg

On August 24, 2007, Couderc and Hachette Filipacchi Associés submitted a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). They argued that an unjustifiable infringement of their freedom of expression had been made, as protected under Art. 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

On May 13, 2014, the Fifth Chamber of the ECtHR considered the complaint admissible and gave a verdict. On September 11, 2014, the French government asked to have the case referred to the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR. On October 13, 2014, the Grand Chamber granted this request. On April 15, 2015, a hearing took place.

Between the parties, there was no dispute that the rulings of the national courts constituted a restriction on the applicants' freedom of expression. Neither was there a dispute about a legal basis for this limitation in Articles 9 and 1382 of the French Civil Code, or that there was a legitimate aim within the meaning of Art. 10 paragraph 2 of the ECHR, that is: the protection of the rights of others, in this case the right to the protection of the Prince Albert's private life.

Private life

Regarding the issue whether the restriction was necessary in the democratic society, the ECtHR put forward that a birth may well have a private nature, but because a birth in principle is made public and establishes a legal relationship between parent and child, it also falls into the public sphere.

Concerning the situation of the Prince of Monaco, the ECtHR considers that this birth had a dimension of public interest, as the Prince, who hadn't begotten any children before, had been given a male child. The birth of this child wasn't without potential consequences for the dynasty and financial implications.

In the article, both the possible consequences for the throne were mentioned in the article, as well as, in the comments of Mrs. Coste, the question of the best interests of the child at the formal establishment of a father-child relationship was addressed.

In this case, the ECtHR held that the information in the article was not without political importance, since such information could raise the public's interest in the rules concerning succession in the Principality. Those rules prohibited a succession of children born outside marriage. The court also ruled that the Prince's attitude, who had wanted to keep his fatherhood a secret, could be a concern to the public in a hereditary monarchy. This also applied to his behavior towards the mother of the child, who hadn't been able to realize her wish to notarial recognition.

Given the nature of the information, the court held that, by publishing Mrs. Coste's story, the applicants had contributed to the reporting of a matter of public interest.

The ECtHR remarked that the Prince was a prominent person. Hence, the national courts had to examine to what extent his prominent position and the public functions that are assigned to his personal influence have to the extent to which he was entitled to the protection of his private life.

The national courts hadn't examined this. The court considered that the national courts should have involved the potential impact of the Prince's status as Head of State on the public sphere in the balancing act, and in this context they should have determined which parts of the publication related to private domain and which parts related to the public domain.

Public relationship

The ECtHR remarked that the publication may well relate to the privacy of the Prince, but the essentials of the information - about the existence of the child - went beyond the private sphere, given the hereditary nature of the function of the Prince as head of state of Monaco.

The ECtHR also noted that the Prince had appeared with Mrs. Coste at his side in public several times now; the relationship with her no longer belonged to the private domain exclusively. The court held that the Prince hadn't disputed the article's veracity. In this regard, the court emphasized the importance of respect for the truth in the dissemination of information. It considered that this respect is essential for the protection of other people's reputations.

The court held that the national courts ought to have investigated which parts of the Mrs. Coste's observations belonged to the essence of the Prince's private life and which parts may be of public interest. The national courts didn't investigate this and found that the publication was in no way part of a debate on a matter of public interest.

Violation of Article 10

The ECtHR concluded that the arguments the French government put forward with regard to the protection of the private life of Prince Albert were not sufficient to justify the infringement of the applicants' freedom of expression.

The national court had insufficiently considered the principles and criteria for the balancing of the right to privacy and freedom of expression as enshrined in the court case law. In view of this, the ECtHR ruled unanimously that Article 10 of the ECHR had been violated.

The case (in Dutch) can be found here and the English summary is available here.

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