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Journalist behind France’s #MeToo movement loses defamation case

“She surpassed the acceptable limits of freedom of expression, as her comments descended into a personal attack,” the court said in its ruling.

By: New York Times |
Updated: September 26, 2019 7:40:05 am
metoo, #metoo movement, france metoo, sandra muller, sandra mulelr defamation, france metoo defamation French journalist Sandra Muller, left, and her lawyer Francis Szpiner give a press conference, in Paris (AP Photo)

Written by Aurelien Breeden

A court in Paris found on Wednesday that the journalist who had started France’s equivalent of the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment defamed a former television executive she had accused of making salacious and humiliating advances to her.

The court ordered the journalist, Sandra Muller, who is based in New York, to pay 15,000 euros (about $16,500) in damages to Eric Brion, a media consultant and former executive at the public broadcaster France Télévisions and the horse-racing channel Equidia. She was also ordered to pay 5,000 euros (about $5,500) to cover his legal fees, and remove Twitter posts mentioning Brion.

“She surpassed the acceptable limits of freedom of expression, as her comments descended into a personal attack,” the court said in its ruling.

Muller started #BalanceTonPorc, or #ExposeYourPig, in 2017 with a series of Twitter posts recounting her experiences with Brion. She said that during a social event at a television festival in Cannes, on the French Riviera, Brion told her: “You have big breasts. You are my type of woman. I will make you orgasm all night.”

In her posts, she also encouraged women to speak out against sexual harassment, and tens of thousands of them adopted the #BalanceTonPorc hashtag, spurring a wider discussion on gender relations and sexual norms in France. Unlike many of the other women who came forward, however, Muller named the man she was accusing of harassment.

Months after Muller’s Twitter posts, Brion sued for defamation. He never denied making inappropriate and crude comments, but said that Muller had been wrong to characterize them as sexual harassment and to tie his case to that of Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul accused by multiple women of decades of abuse, including rape.

Brion argued that his comments had been made once and under the influence of alcohol, and added that he had apologized soon afterward. He also stressed that although he knew Muller professionally — she works for an online news site that covers the media — they did not work together.

The court in Paris agreed with Brion, ruling that Muller lacked a sufficient “factual basis” to accuse him of sexual harassment and that she had failed to show “caution” in her posts on Twitter, using the term “pig,” tying Brion to Weinstein and exposing him to “social reprobation.”

Muller called the verdict “disappointing” and “incomprehensible.” She and her lawyer said they would appeal, which temporarily suspends the fines and other court orders.

“This ruling takes nothing away from the fact that women are now speaking freely, that you need to continue to speak, that you need to continue to report reprehensible acts, whatever they are,” Muller said at a news conference held at her lawyer’s office in Paris. “I will continue to fight on these issues every day.”

In 2017, Time magazine named Muller as one of the “silence breakers,” the women who had come forward to accuse powerful men of sexual harassment and assault, in choosing them collectively as Person of the Year.

In France, however, the #MeToo movement exposed a sharp social and cultural divide. Last year, more than 100 women, including actress Catherine Deneuve, signed a public letter denouncing the movement and arguing that its supporters and those of #BalanceTonPorc had created a totalitarian climate by publicly prosecuting private experiences.

In the #BalanceTonPorc case, Brion testified at a hearing in May 2019 that he had suffered a “descent into hell” after Muller’s posts on Twitter, adding that he was still taking medication for depression and that he had lost several business and job opportunities.

Brion told the CNews television channel on Wednesday, “My trial happened on Twitter, on Facebook, and it’s impossible to defend yourself.”

“You can’t destroy a man’s life,” he added, “just because one evening he spoke to you inappropriately, without going any further.”

Muller and her lawyers rejected the defamation accusations, noting that Brion had acknowledged making the comments and arguing that the court’s ruling would discourage women from coming forward.

Francis Szpiner, Muller’s lawyer, said that the fines were “punitive” for someone with her level of income.

“Had one wanted to ensure that women not speak out, that women stay silent, one wouldn’t have proceeded any other way,” Szpiner said at the news conference.

But Nicolas Bénoit, one of Brion’s lawyers, said the court had ruled against Muller, not the movement she helped create.

“Did Ms. Muller give proof of the truth of her accusations? The answer is no,” Bénoit said in a phone interview. “Does the Balance Ton Porc movement — a movement that is in the public interest — justify, even a little bit, this mistake? The court says no.”

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