September 18th, 2012

French Court Orders Magazine to Hand Over Topless Photos of Kate Middleton

Three days after a French gossip magazine published photos of Kate Middleton, Dutchess of Cambridge, sunbathing topless, a court in France has ordered the magazine’s publisher to hand over all digital copies and blocked future publication of the images in any medium. The court ruled yesterday that the tabloid Closer must hand over the images within 24 hours or face a penalty of $13,100 a day, the AP reports. The photos were taken without permission while Middleton and her husband, William the Duke of Cambridge, an heir to the British throne, were vacationing at a private home court in the South of France. The French court also fined the French branch of Closer’s publisher, Mondadori, which is owned by Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian media mogul (and disgraced prime minister.)

Maud Sobel, a lawyer for the royal couple, said after the verdict, “We’ve been vindicated.” However, the French court’s ruling only affects Closer; the images have already been in an issue of Chi in Italy (also owned by Mondadori) and in the Independent Star of Ireland.  And who knows how many websites have reposted them.

The ruling may seem surprising. France, a country that has codified droit d’auteur, “moral rights” and other artists’ protections into law,  and hasn’t had much use for monarchs since Louis XVI was guillotined n 1793,  is siding against the press in favor of some huffy royals on the other side of the Channel.

According to the court, however, the issue at stake was the couple’s privacy.

The ruling states, “These snapshots which showed the intimacy of a couple, partially naked on the terrace of a private home, surrounded by a park several hundred meters from a public road, and being able to legitimately assume that they are protected from passers-by, are by nature particularly intrusive,” the French ruling decreed.

While the French tradition of holding artists’ rights in high regard probably dates back to  the French Revolution, its privacy laws are steeped in an even older tradition: the protection of honor.

Reviewing a new history of privacy law in The New York Times, Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor and editor at The New Republic, noted that Europe and America have always had different conceptions of privacy.

Rosen says that in the European tradition, privacy was conceived “as a way of protecting human dignity (as opposed to the American one, which is more interested in privacy as a way of protecting liberty).” Quoting scholar James Q. Whitman, Rosen notes that privacy rights grew out of a “deeply hierarchical society where all citizens knew their place and how much privacy they were entitled to demand: in such a world, privacy was for aristocrats, not for common people.”

The French court’s decision bears out Whitman’s contention: the ruling protects the honor of an aristocrat. A commoner might not have won this case. Not they would need to sue, since the breasts of us common folk aren’t tabloid fodder.