In the wake of the shocking murder of journalists and innocent bystanders in Paris last week, many commentators have extolled the virtues of the unfettered right to freedom of expression. But freedom of expression is limited in all democracies. The European Court of Human Rights often condone restrictions imposed on freedom of expression by democratic governments across Europe, finding that such restrictions comply with the provisions of the European Convention of Human Rights. I have dug up a few examples to illustrate this rather obvious, but often ignored, point.
In 2013 Chelsea Manning was convicted by a United States court of violating the Espionage Act and other offenses, after releasing classified documents eventually published on Wikileaks. Manning is serving a 35-year prison sentence for her “crime”. But it is not only in the US where freedom of expression is often restricted for political, religious or so called “moral” reasons.
In what follows I provide examples of recent freedom of expression judgments of the European Court of Human Rights that demonstrate that across Europe courts often justify restrictions on freedom of expression and that Europe’s highest human rights tribunal regularly uphold such restrictions.
This means that it may not be accurate to imply (as some – but not all – commentators on the Charlie Hebdo tragedy have done) that any state that imposes limits on freedom of expression to accommodate the religious sensitivities of a section of the population would in effect condone religious tyranny and intolerance.
Otto-Preminger-Institut v Austria (1994)
In 1985, at the request of the Innsbruck diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, an Austrian public prosecutor instituted criminal proceedings against Otto-Preminger-Institut’s manager for “disparaging religious doctrines”, an act prohibited by section 188 of the Austrian Penal Code for advertising and showing a film Das Liebeskonzil (“Council in Heaven”).
The authorities subsequently seized the movie. It was the seizure of the movie and the legal provision that authorized this that was challenged before the European Court of Human Rights on the basis that it unjustifiably infringed on article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Article 10(1) states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.”
Das Liebeskonzil portrays God as an apparently senile old man prostrating himself before the Devil with whom he exchanges a deep kiss and calling the Devil his friend. The adult Jesus Christ is portrayed as a low-grade mental defective and in one scene is shown lasciviously attempting to fondle and kiss his mother’s breasts, which she is shown as permitting.
Finding that the seizure of the movie did not infringe unjustifiably on the right to freedom of expression the Court took note of the fact “that the Roman Catholic religion is the religion of the overwhelming majority of” the community in which it was shown.
“In seizing the film, the Austrian authorities acted to ensure religious peace in that region and to prevent that some people should feel the object of attacks on their religious beliefs in an unwarranted and offensive manner.”
Leroy v France (2008)
In 2002, the French cartoonist Denis Leroy was convicted for complicity in condoning terrorism for drawing a cartoon representing the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, with a caption which parodied the advertising slogan of a famous brand: “We have all dreamt of it… Hamas did it”.
The conviction was secured in terms of article 24, section 6 of the French Press Act of 1881, which penalises, apart from incitement to terrorism, also condoning (glorifying) terrorism.
The Court argued that through his choice of language, Leroy commented approvingly on the violence perpetrated against thousands of civilians and diminished the dignity of the victims, as he submitted his drawing on the day of the attacks and it was published on 13 September.
According to the Court, the cartoon had provoked a certain public reaction, capable of stirring up violence and demonstrating a plausible impact on public order in the region. In the circumstances the European Court of Human Rights found that the conviction constituted a permissible limitation on the right to freedom of expression protected by article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights.
Mouvement Raëlien Suisse v Switzerland (2012)
The aim of the Raëlien movement is to make the first contacts and establish good relations with extra-terrestrials. The Raëlien Movement’s followers believe that scientific and technical progress is of fundamental importance and that cloning and the “transfer of conscience” will enable man to become immortal. In that connection the Raëlien Movement has expressed opinions in favour of human cloning.
In 2001 the Swiss arm of the movement was denied permission to launch a poster campaign on the basis that the Raëlien Movement was a sect and engaged in activities that were contrary to public order (ordre public) and immoral.
The movement wanted to put up posters with the heading: “The Message from Extra-terrestrials”. At the very bottom was the phrase “Science at last replaces religion”.
The European Court confirmed the legality of the prohibition on the distribution of the posters, noting that the movement were still able to continue to disseminate its ideas through its website, and through other means at its disposal such as the distribution of leaflets in the street or in letter-boxes.
Ï.A. v Turkey (2005)
In 1994 the applicant was convicted of blasphemy against “God, the Religion, the Prophet and the Holy Book” after publishing a book criticising the beliefs, ideas, traditions and way of life of Anatolian Turkish society “by adopting the independent and nonconformist viewpoint of the leaders, thinkers and scientists of the Renaissance in order to enlighten and advise our people as he sees fit”.
The book contained passages that implied “a certain element of humiliation, scorn and discredit vis-à-vis religion, the Prophet and belief in God according to Islam”.
The European Court on Human Rights declined to find that the conviction constituted an unjustifiable infringement on the right to freedom of expression protected in article 10 of the Convention of Human Rights.
Noting that the impugned action against the author was “intended to provide protection against offensive attacks on matters regarded as sacred by Muslims” it held that the measures “may reasonably be held to have met a ‘pressing social need’”.
Wingrove v The United Kingdom (1996)
Mr Nigel Wingrove, a film director, made a video entitled Visions of Ecstasy, which he hoped to distribute to interested people across the United Kingdom. The action of the film centres upon a youthful actress dressed as a nun and intended to represent St Teresa.
It begins with the nun, dressed loosely in a black habit, stabbing her own hand with a large nail and spreading her blood over her naked breasts and clothing. In her writhing, she spills a chalice of communion wine and proceeds to lick it up from the ground.
The second part shows St Teresa dressed in a white habit standing with her arms held above her head by a white cord which is suspended from above and tied around her wrists. The near-naked form of a second female, said to represent St Teresa’s psyche, slowly crawls her way along the ground towards her. Upon reaching St Teresa’s feet, the psyche begins to caress her feet and legs, then her midriff, then her breasts, and finally exchanges passionate kisses with her.
The British Board of Film Classification refused to authorise the lawful distribution or showing of the movie due to its “obscene” nature and because the movie was “blasphemous”. Although it was not blasphemous to speak or publish opinions hostile to the Christian religion if the publication is “decent and temperate”, “the tone, style and spirit” of the movie was “bound to give rise to outrage at the unacceptable treatment of a sacred subject”.
The European Court of Human Rights found that “it was not unreasonable” for the UK authorities to refuse to classify the movie for distribution. Although this amounted to a complete ban on the film’s distribution, “this was an understandable consequence” of the blasphemous nature of the movie.
The Court thus found that the banning of the film was justified as being necessary in a democratic society within the meaning of paragraph 2 of Article 10. This paragraph states that:
“The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”
These examples suggest that many states across Europe pass laws or impose judicial limits on free speech to accommodate the religious and moral sensitivities of members of their societies which are not considered to threaten basic democratic freedoms by Europe’s highest human rights tribunal.
Many of us may well disagree with the latitude shown by the European Court of Human Rights towards such limitations. We may prefer a more expansive interpretation of free speech and a more restrictive interpretation of the justifiable limitations on freedom of expression.
However, any relatively informed person will have to think twice before arguing that any state that limits freedom of expression to accommodate the religious sensitivities of a section of the population would condone religious tyranny and intolerance or that demands for such limitations itself constitute an attack on freedom, liberty and democracy. DM
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Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.
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