Learn more about Peltz-Steele v. UMass Faculty Federation at Court Listener (complaint) and the Liberty Justice Center. The case is now on appeal in the First Circuit as no. 22-1466 (PACER paywall). Please direct media inquiries to Kristen Williamson.
Showing posts with label Istanbul Convention. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Istanbul Convention. Show all posts

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Court thins line between hate speech, free speech, while deepening European continental divide

Mural in Sofia, Bulgaria
(2019 photo by RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
A politician's racist hate speech and Holocaust denial were too readily protected by the freedom of speech in Bulgaria, the European Court of Human Rights opined in a February decision that challenges free expression and deepens tension between western and eastern Europe.

In litigation by Citizens Against Hatred and allied NGOs, plaintiffs sued in Sofia for harassment and incitement to discrimination.  Their target was Volen Siderov, a far right-wing politician, founder of the "Attack" party, who beat the drum of Bulgarian nationalism in two books and a speech to Parliament.  Siderov perpetuated denigrating stereotypes including that Jews manufactured the Holocaust as a scheme for financial extortion and that Roma people are "prone to crime and depravity."  His hate speech also targeted Turks, Catholics, and LGBTQ persons. 

Siderov's speech did not target individuals, nor call for any specific act of discrimination or violence.  The Sofia court ultimately dismissed the claims, unable to find that any one person had suffered injury or loss as a result of Siderov's vitriol.  The Sofia City Court and the Bulgarian Supreme Court of Cassation affirmed, holding, with reference to European jurisprudence, that Siderov's speech was protected by the freedom of expression.

In Strasbourg, the European Court of Human Rights held that the claimants had been denied a fair hearing in Bulgarian courts, a violation of their rights of dignity and freedom from discrimination under articles 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.  Maybe Siderov's speech was protected expression under article 10 of the European Convention.  But the Bulgarian courts had been too quickly dismissive of the plaintiffs' claims.

"Expression on matters of public interest is in principle entitled to strong protection under Article 10 of the Convention, whereas expression that promotes or justifies violence, hatred, xenophobia or another form of intolerance cannot normally claim protection," the court explained.  "[I]t may be justified to impose even serious criminal-law sanctions on journalists or politicians in cases of hate speech or incitement to violence."

Volen Siderov
(Flickr by Nedko Ivanov CC BY 2.0)

The Bulgarian courts had not drawn an appropriate balance.  "Although the courts acknowledged the vehemence of the statements, they downplayed their capacity to stigmatise Jews as a group and arouse hatred and prejudice against them, and apparently saw them as no more than part of a legitimate debate on matters of public concern."

The decision strikes a note of discord in both westerly and easterly directions.  As a matter of free speech absolutism, American courts have been consistently resistant to regulation of hate speech.  Academics have twisted themselves into knots to reconcile the civil-rights-era First Amendment with a 1952 Supreme Court decision that momentarily sanctioned criminal libel based on race, color, creed, or religion.  Meanwhile, the First Amendment continues to be a perplexing problem for would-be regulators who link disinformation with populist nationalism of Siderov's ilk.

At the same time, the European Court decision is bound to aggravate a burgeoning resistance in Bulgaria, and throughout the east, to perceived western European cultural imperialism.  Bulgarian courts in 2018 ruled unconstitutional, and the Bulgarian Parliament was prepared to vote down, the Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women, "the Istanbul Convention" (Euractiv).  The politicization of an issue so seemingly uncontroversial is a story revealing of a deeper continental divide, and the court's strike against Siderov plays right into perceived grievances.

The case is Behar & Gutman v. Bulgaria, No. 29335/13 (Eur. Ct. Hum. Rts. Feb. 16, 2021) (LawEuro).