Hungary Internet-Comment Ruling Sparks Free-Speech Worry

Hungary’s Constitutional Court ruled that content providers are liable for unmoderated, third-party comments posted on the Internet, prompting the court’s head to warn in a parallel opinion that it could limit free speech.

In a ruling dated May 27, Justices said Internet content providers that don’t moderate third-party comments are just as liable for the comments as websites that moderate them. The majority decision said this was necessary to protect personal rights guaranteed in the constitution.

The ruling can “easily result in decisions that disproportionately limit freedom of speech,” Constitutional Court President Peter Paczolay, who voted with the majority, said in a parallel legal opinion he wrote to show an alternative take on the case.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has clashed with the European Union, United Nations and media advocate groups in the past four years over a powerful Media Council he set up that is exclusively led by ruling-party appointees. Orban, who was re-elected in April, has also nominated party members to the top court’s bench.

The court ruling failed to distinguish between freedom of the press and the more general freedom of expression, and judges should have striven to ensure a “constitutional balance” between personal rights and freedom of expression, Paczolay said in the parallel opinion.

“This ruling can significantly curb free debate in the country,” Dunja Mijatovic, Representative on Freedom of the Media at the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said in a statement today.

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