Israel's Deputy Supreme Court President, a Champion of Freedom of Expression, Retires

Justice Eliezer Rivlin retires after having reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.

Deputy Supreme Court President Eliezer Rivlin, one of the court's foremost champions of freedom of expression, will retire Monday, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.

Rivlin's most recent defense of freedom of expression was his decision to overturn the conviction of journalist Ilana Dayan in a libel suit filed by an IDF officer known as Captain R. In 2006, he wrote a minority opinion arguing that another journalist, Amnon Dankner, should be acquitted of libel for calling right-wing activist Itamar Ben-Gvir a Nazi. Freedom of expression, he wrote in that ruling, is "the mother of all freedoms," situated in "the highest stratum of basic rights," and essential to a functioning democracy.

Two years ago, Rivlin rejected an appeal by a practitioner of alternative medicine who had been besmirched by an anonymous web surfer and sought to force the Internet service provider to reveal his name so she could sue him. In this case, the justice ruled that the anonymity of web feedback sites should be protected because it furthered freedom of expression. "Anonymity is sometimes a condition for the very possibility of and willingness to express oneself," he wrote. "And sometimes, anonymity is also part of the message."

But it was his verdict in the Captain R. case, in which he was joined by justices Uzi Vogelman and Isaac Amit, that is considered the ultimate expression of his views on freedom of expression. That case involved a report by Dayan in which she accused R. of having "confirmed the kill" of a 13-year-old girl in Gaza. The Jerusalem District Court found Dayan guilty of libel, but the Supreme Court overturned this decision - though R. has since asked it to reconsider the case with an expanded panel of justices, and the court may yet decide to do so.

In his ruling, Rivlin wrote that a journalist is obligated to report on matters of public interest, and even if the report later proves wrong (R. was subsequently cleared of the charge after his lieutenant admitted in court to having fabricated it ), journalists should not be held liable as long as they made a reasonable effort to confirm the facts. He also said the courts should not second-guess the editorial or production decisions that, in the lower court's view, painted a far more damning picture of R. than was warranted by the facts known at the time.

Yet while civil rights groups applauded his liberal approach to freedom of expression, they frequently accused him of undermining the rights of foreign workers - for instance, by allowing certain foreign workers to be bound to a specific employer.

Rivlin was also known as an expert in torts law, and here, he was responsible for a ground-breaking innovation: a ruling enabling the families of accident victims to obtain compensation for the victim's lost years of earning power. He also ruled that for this purpose, the calculation for all minors should be equal (based on the average wage in the economy ), to emphasize that regardless of family background or schooling, every child has the potential to do well economically.

The final verdict he will read Monday will also deal with torts law, involving the right of a child born disabled to sue the doctors who examined his mother during pregnancy.

Yet another major verdict was Rivlin's dissent from the ruling that deemed the Tal Law unconstitutional. The court, he argued, should not interfere in the Knesset's decisions on draft deferrals for yeshiva students, as this is "a complex social issue whose solution is evolutionary."

Born in Jerusalem to a family that had lived in the city for seven generations, Rivlin began his career on the bench in 1976 as a traffic court judge. In 1978, he became a magistrate's court judge, and four years later, he was promoted to the Be'er Sheva District Court. In 1999, he received a temporary appointment to the Supreme Court, and a year later, the appointment was made permanent. He became deputy president of the court in 2006.

As the court's most senior justice, Rivlin should have become president for the three months between former president Dorit Beinisch's retirement and his own. But he waived the privilege, enabling Asher Grunis to succeed Beinisch. This decision, as a colleague on the bench said, is the ultimate testimony to Rivlin's fundamental modesty.

Deputy Supreme Court President Eliezer Rivlin
Daniel Bar-On