Reporting harassment is in the public interest and should be encouraged rather than punished, a Finnish court ruled today. That message was part of a ruling dismissing criminal charges against two astronomers who protested the hiring of a US scientist found to have committed gender-based harassment in a previous academic job.
“I hope this case sets a precedent,” says Syksy Räsänen of the University of Helsinki, one of the defendants.
Räsänen and Till Sawala, also of the University of Helsinki, were part of a campaign to overturn the University of Turku’s decision nearly 5 years ago to hire astrophysicist Christian Ott as a postdoc. Previously, Ott had been a faculty member at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) when the university concluded in 2015 that he had molested two graduate students. The case received extensive media coverage.
Ott resigned from Caltech in August 2017 and signed a 2-year contract in January 2018 to work at the Tuorla Observatory in Turku. News of his appointment sparked widespread protests in Finland and beyond, including a letter to senior Turku administrators organized by Räsänen and Sawala urging him not to be hired. A week later Turku canceled the deal.
Ott then sued Turku for breach of contract and ultimately received more than $150,000 in damages from Turku and Stockholm University, who had agreed in December 2017 to hire him as a postdoc before withdrawing the offer. In October 2018, Ott filed a criminal complaint in Finland against Räsänen and Sawala, which resulted in a police investigation.
Last year, prosecutors charged Räsänen and Sawala with “aggravated defamation” and “aggravated dissemination of information that violates [Ott’s] intimacy.” Today’s ruling followed a 4-day trial last summer in the Turku District Court.
The 25-page ruling essentially confirms what scientists have been doing in an attempt to block hiring. The defendants managed to “systematically bring information regarding harassment and discrimination … to the attention of large numbers of people,” the judges wrote (as translated by the attorney for one of the defendants). “This is not prohibited, let alone a criminal offence. On the contrary, this can be considered a matter of such public interest [that] you must be able to discuss openly.
Räsänen and Sawala say they are “relieved” by the acquittal and believe the judges are sending a broader message to the scientific community. “No one should fear fines or a prison sentence for simply speaking out against harassment based on widely and reliably reported facts,” says Räsänen.
“It was a very long and tiring process,” Sawala adds. “Moving forward, what we really need to focus on is the impact of harassment and how to prevent it, not the rights and privileges of someone who has been harassing students.”
Ott declined to comment, saying he first needed to “review and analyze” the judge’s decision once an English version was available.
In their ruling, the two district judges said Räsänen had misused the word “sexual harassment” in three social media posts describing the Caltech v. Ott filings. But that error did not constitute defamation, they said, because there was no ‘was no malicious intent and why Räsänen stopped using the phrase – which has been included in several news reports – once he learned it was incorrect.
“There were strong reasons to consider [those reports] be true and trust the news in question,” the judges ruled. As a result, the judges noted, “defendants did not intentionally present false information or innuendo” about Ott.
In dismissing the charges, the judges also rejected Ott’s request that the defendants pay him compensation for his alleged loss of income and alleged suffering resulting from the negative publicity. Likewise, Ott’s request to have all the defendants’ writings on the matter removed was rejected. The acquittal also means that the state will pay the defendants’ legal fees.