In January and March 2019, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) and a public broadcasting agency filed lawsuits against and indicted Wojciech Sadurski, a professor of law at the University of Warsaw, in Poland, and the University of Sydney, in Australia, in apparent retaliation for public comments he made criticizing the two plaintiffs.
Sadurski is a renowned scholar of law who has held professorships in Poland, Australia, Italy, and the US. He is a public intellectual famous for his critiques of PiS, the state of democracy in Poland, and ongoing judicial reforms.
On January 21, 2019, PiS filed a lawsuit against Sadurski, alleging that his characterization of the party as a “criminal group” over social media had caused harm to the party’s personal rights. The specific comments date back to November 10, 2018, when Sadurski reportedly denounced the Polish government over Twitter for organizing an Independence Day military parade that was allegedly planned to take place alongside a far-right demonstration. Condemning the parade, Sadurski reportedly compared PiS to an “organized criminal group.”
On the same day the PiS suit was filed, Poland’s public broadcaster TVP indicted Sadurski for criminal defamation, claiming a separate comment had caused reputational damage and financial losses. On January 16, 2019, Sadurski called on opposition politicians via Twitter not to appear on “government media” channels who he alleged had “hounded” the Mayor of Gdansk, Paweł Adamowicz, prior to his assassination on January 13, 2019. While a judge initially dismissed the indictment on March 18, TVP appealed the decision days later, and it thus remains pending. TVP also filed a separate civil defamation suit against Sadurski in relation to the comment on March 20,2019.
Both criminal and civil lawsuits seek the payment of heavy fines from Sadurski. If found guilty in the civil cases, Sadurski would be required to pay a fine, his own legal fees, and those of the plaintiffs. If found guilty of criminal defamation, Sadurski could face jail time or could be forced to pay a fine. Additionally, PiS and TVP have both demanded that Sadurski pay for an expensive advertisement in a daily newspaper to issue public apologies. Sadurski has reportedly stated that these punishments exceed his financial resources.
Since taking power in 2016, PiS has used libel and defamation lawsuits, often against journalists, to punish criticism of the party and its members. On the day of Sadurski’s indictment, TVP reportedly also filed criminal defamation charges against musician Krzysztof Skibie and journalist Wojciech Czuchnowski for making comments about the station’s coverage of Adomowicz prior to his assassination. On February 20, 2019 PiS filed separate criminal defamation charges against Czuchnowski and his colleague Iwona Szpala for publishing an article about alleged corruption for the independent newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the use of criminal and civil lawsuits by State or state-affiliated entities in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression—conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Poland is a signatory. State authorities must refrain from restricting or otherwise interfering in the nonviolent exercise of such rights. Such incidents have a chilling effect on academic freedom and undermine democratic society generally.