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Can a scientific review be the cause of action in a defamation suit?

Sławomir Poleszak, PhD, head of the Public Education Office of the Lublin branch of the Institute of National Remembrance, wrote a review of the book ‘Narodowe Siły Zbrojne na Lubelszczyźnie’ (National Armed Forces in the Lublin region) by Professor Mirosław Piotrowski. The review was to be published in the Freedom and Independence History Research Bulletin (the actual publication never took place).

Dr. Poleszak evaluation was then sent to the secretary of the editorial team of the Freedom and Independence History Research Bulletin, Professor Mirosław Piotrowski. He was supposed to read and respond to the review, if necessary. On his behalf, Ewa Rzeczkowska PhD and Professor Zbigniew Karpus prepared the response. Having received it, Dr. Poleszak decided to withdraw his article from publication.

Later, in August 2010, Prof. Piotrowski brought a private accusation against Dr. Poleszak, charging him with defamation which allegedly consisted in Dr. Poleszak including in the review untrue, in the accuser’s view, information about Prof. Piotrowski and his book.

In December 2010, District Court in Lublin, IV Criminal Division, discontinued the proceedings, holding that the accused conduct did not satisfy the requisite elements of the alleged offence. The court also noted that according to the line of argument presented in the indictment, any critical statements made towards Mr Piotrowski’s article would result in a defamation charge. The court also reasoned that an expression of critical opinions is a necessary element of a scientific dispute. The ruling said that statements of the accused were consistent with the acceptable social standards.

However, in March 2011 the Circuit Court in Lublin reversed the first instance court’s decision and remanded the case for re-trial to the District Court for Lublin-Zachód in Lublin.

In April 2011, Mr Maciej Ślusarek, attorney for Dr. Poleszak, filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the accusation failed to show the requisite elements of the alleged offence. The defence case is based on the assumption that a scientific review cannot and may never be a cause of action in defamation cases since critical statements addressed to other members of academia are necessary to develop public debate and exchange opinions.

On Wednesday, 21 September 2011, a preliminary hearing in this case was held. The parties were offered an opportunity to settle the case but decided to go to a full trial. The Court adjourned the case until 9 November.

The case has been accepted to the HFHR Strategic Litigation Programme. As a courtesy to the Helsinki Foundation, Mr Ślusarek agreed to represent Dr. Poleszak pro bono.

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