Otto-Preminger-Institut v. Austria

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ARTICLE 19

20 Sep 1994

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20 September 1994, Application No. 13470/87 (European Court of Human Rights)

Theme:Other content restrictions; Media regulation: general issues
Sub-Issues:Blasphemy; Prior scrutiny, seizures and bans
Test: 
Penalty:ban/suspension/seizure
Decision:

no violation of freedom of expression; six vote to three

JurisdictionEuropean Court of Human Rights: Austria

Facts:

The applicant was a private association established in Innsbruck, whose object was to promote creativity, communication and entertainment through the audio-visual media. It announced a series of films to be open to the public, including one entitled Council of Heaven. An information bulletin concerning this film was distributed to the applicant's members, and was placed in a number of display windows. The bulletin stated that persons under 17 years old were prohibited from seeing the film, and described the film. It stated that trivial imagery and absurdities of the Christian creed would be caricatured. After the Roman Catholic Church instituted criminal proceedings against the applicant, the film was seized. In later proceedings, the film was ordered to be forfeited on the grounds that it came within the definition of the criminal offence of disparaging religious precepts.

Held:

There was an interference with the exercise by the applicant of its right to freedom of expression; it was prescribed by law.

Content Restrictions

The purpose of the measures complained of was the protection of the right to citizens not to be insulted in their religious feelings by the public expression of views of others; the interference therefore pursued a legitimate aim, namely the protection of the rights of others.

Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democracy and is applicable to information which shocks or offends. However, those who exercise the right to freedom of expression undertake duties and responsibilities in accordance with Article 10(2).

Blasphemy

The Court stated that among such duties and responsibilities are:

[the] obligation to avoid as far as possible expressions that are gratuitously offensive to others and thus an infringement of their rights and which do not contribute to any form of public debate capable of furthering progress in human affairs. This being so, as a matter of principle it may be considered necessary in certain democratic societies to sanction or even prevent improper attacks on objects of religious veneration, provided always that any 'formality', 'conditions', 'restriction; or 'penalty' imposed be proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued. (para. 49)

Since it is not possible to discern throughout Europe a uniform conception of the significance of religion in society, a margin of appreciation is left to the State authorities.

Ban/suspension/seizure

The proposed screening which was widely advertised, must be considered to have been an expression sufficiently public to cause offence. The majority of Tyroleans were Roman Catholics. In seizing the film, the authorities acted to ensure the religious peace in that region and to prevent people from feeling the object of the attacks on their religious beliefs in an unwarranted and offensive manner. The same reasoning applied to the forfeiture. Thus, the court found that there was no violation of Article 10.


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