Lithuania: landmark free expression win for LGBTQI+ community

Lithuania: landmark free expression win for LGBTQI+ community - Media

ARTICLE 19 welcomes today’s decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Macaté v. Lithuania concerning the censorship of a fairy tale book depicting same-sex couples. The European Court found that placing ‘a warning label’ on the book that the content was ‘harmful’ to children violated freedom of expression of the author and access to information of children. The verdict is an important win for free speech of LGBTQI+ community as well as a strong statement opposing discrimination against them in Europe and beyond. 

Commenting on the verdict, Barbora Bukovská, Senior Director for Law and Policy at ARTICLE 19, said: 

Protection of children or public morals are too often used as a convenient pretext to restrict freedom of expression, and demonise and discriminate against members of the LGBTQI+ community. With today’s verdict, the European Court has rejected this kind of scaremongering tactic and made clear that it cannot be tolerated.

The book was labelled as harmful to children because of deep-rooted stereotypes and misconceptions around same sex relationships. Labels and warnings on content by, and about, LGBTQI+ people contribute to exclusionary policies and can silence voices from the community. Attempts to silence a whole segment of the population cannot be framed as an issue of morality or the protection of children, but must be called out for what they are – a violation of human rights.

The case concerned Neringa Dangvydė Macatė, an openly gay children’s book author, whose fairy-tale book including stories of same-sex couples was marked with a warning label stating that the content ‘might have a negative effect on persons below the age of fourteen’. 

The warning label was put on the book after backlash following the initial publications. The book’s publisher, Lithuanian University of Education, initially stopped the distribution of the book and then justified the use of warning labels by invoking the Lithuanian law on the protection of minors. The law stipulates that any information ‘expressing contempt for family values’ or ‘promoting the creation of a family different from that enshrined in the Constitution of the Civil code’ can be considered harmful to minors. 

In 2021, the Chamber of the European Court relinquished jurisdiction in the case, in favour of the Grand Chamber, the highest judicial section of the Court, indicating the case’s exceptional legal importance. 

In the judgement, the Grand Chamber concluded that Lithuania was directly responsible for violating author’s right to freedom of expression. The Court concluded that placing a warning label on the book dissuaded a significant number of parents from letting their children read it, especially given the level of prejudice against the LGBTQI+ community in Lithuania.

Additionally, the Court found that placing the warning label on the book limited children’s access to information depicting same-sex relationships. The Court said that it “could not see how, according to the national courts and the Government, certain passages – a princess and a shoemaker’s daughter sleeping in one another’s arms after their wedding – had been sexually explicit. Nor was it convinced by the Government’s argument that the book had promoted same-sex families over others. To the contrary, the fairy tales had advocated respect for and acceptance of all members of society in a fundamental aspect of their lives, namely a committed relationship.”

Since the applicant, the author of the book, passed away since the case started, the European Court ordered Lithuania to pay damages (in the amount of EUR 12,000) and legal expenses to her heir. 

In January 2022, ARTICLE 19, together with Professor David Kaye and ILGA-Europe, submitted a third-party intervention to the Court. In our submission ARTICLE 19 pointed out that the use of warning labels can have a big negative impact on freedom of expression of authors, who, to avoid a risk of their books being labelled as ‘harmful’, might think twice before writing about certain topics.

LGBTQI+ people in many European countries continue to suffer discrimination, prejudice and even violence because of who they are. ARTICLE 19 supports today’s decision as it sends a clear message that discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation limits people’s freedom of expression, is fundamentally incompatible with international human rights standards, and, therefore, has no place in a modern democracy.