Freedom to insult? Balancing freedom of expression with religious tolerance in ECHR case law

Professor Steve Peers, University of Essex

A recent judgmentof the European Court of Human Rights has raised again the question of whether there should be limits on free speech when someone might be offended by it – in this case, concerning the Muslim faith. It’s a good opportunity to explain the context of the case and assess what – if any – limits should be acceptable on free speech in such cases.


The saga of ES v Austria began at a public seminar on “Basic Information on Islam” organised by the institute of a right-wing Austrian political party. An undercover journalist complained to the police about some of the comments made at the seminar (in particular about Mohamed as inclined to pedophilia), and the speaker was prosecuted. She was ultimately convicted and ordered to pay a small fine as a penalty, for breach of Article 188 of the Austrian Criminal Code:

 “Whoever, in circumstances where his or her behaviour is likely to arouse justified indignation, publicly disparages or insults a person who, or an object which, is an object of veneration of a church or religious community established within the country, or a dogma, a lawful custom or a lawful institution of such a church or religious community, shall be liable to up to six months’ imprisonment or a day-fine for a period of up to 360 days.”

 The conviction was upheld on appeal throughout the national courts, and the applicant then complained to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that her right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) had been infringed. Since her free expression had obviously been penalised, the crucial issue in the case was whether the interference with that right was justified under Article 10(2) ECHR, which provides:

2. 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.”

The restriction in this case was “prescribed by law” (as can be seen above), and so the issue is whether the restriction was “necessary in a democratic society”. The Court began its assessment by reiterating (from its prior case law) that freedom of speech is “one of the essential foundations of a democratic society” and applies not just to statements that are “regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb”. Article 10(2) provides “little scope…for restrictions on political speech or on debate on questions of public interest”. In particular, believers in a religion, “irrespective of whether they do so as members of a religious majority or a minority, therefore cannot expect to be exempt from criticism. They must tolerate and accept the denial by others of their religious beliefs and even the propagation by others of doctrines hostile to their faith.”

Having said that, though, the “duties and responsibilities” referred to in Article 10 include (referring again to case law):

“the general requirement to ensure the peaceful enjoyment of the rights guaranteed under Article 9 [freedom of religion] to the holders of such beliefs including a duty to avoid as far as possible an expression that is, in regard to objects of veneration, gratuitously offensive to others and profane….Where such expressions go beyond the limits of a critical denial of other people’s religious beliefs and are likely to incite religious intolerance, for example in the event of an improper or even abusive attack on an object of religious veneration, a State may legitimately consider them to be incompatible with respect for the freedom of thought, conscience and religion and take proportionate restrictive measures….In addition, expressions that seek to spread, incite or justify hatred based on intolerance, including religious intolerance, do not enjoy the protection afforded by Article 10 of the Convention.”

In this context, prior case law had concluded that ECHR Contracting States “enjoy a certain margin of appreciation” in this field – meaning that the ECtHR does not intensively review how they strike the balance between freedom of speech and the protection of religious sensibilities, in particular as there is no “uniform European conception” of how to strike this balance. Moreover, ECHR States also “have the positive obligation under Article 9 of the Convention of ensuring the peaceful co‑existence of all religions and those not belonging to a religious group by ensuring mutual tolerance”. (A “positive obligation” is a legal requirement for the State to takeaction to protect individual rights, not just to refrain from action such as banning speech or prosecuting people for their comments). A State “may therefore legitimately consider it necessary” to limit the free speech of some which is “judged incompatible with respect for the freedom of thought, conscience and religion of others”, although ultimately the ECtHR exercises some review over how a State strikes that balance in each particular case.

Prior case law has turned on whether a value judgment has sufficient factual proof to support it, and the ECtHR’s role is not “to take the place of the national authorities”, but to review if their decisions are based “on an acceptable assessment of the relevant facts…and whether the interference corresponded to a “pressing social need” and was “proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued””, in light of the “content of the statements” and “the context in which they were made”. Also, “the nature and severity of the penalty imposed are also factors to be taken into account”. If the national authorities have already applied such a balancing exercise in line with these criteria, “the Court would require strong reasons to substitute its view for that of the domestic courts”.

Applying those principles to this case, the subject matter was “particularly sensitive”, and so “the domestic authorities had a wide margin of appreciation” because “they were in a better position to evaluate which statements were likely to disturb the religious peace in their country”. The seminars in question were public, and Austrian law did not simply “incriminate all behaviour that is likely to hurt religious feelings or amounts to blasphemy, but additionally requires that the circumstances of such behaviour were able to arouse justified indignation, therefore aiming at the protection of religious peace and tolerance.” The national courts “extensively explained why they considered that the applicant’s statements had been capable of arousing justified indignation”, and the ECtHR agreed with the lower court “that presenting objects of religious worship in a provocative way capable of hurting the feelings of the followers of that religion could be conceived as a malicious violation of the spirit of tolerance, which was one of the bases of a democratic society”.

The Court went on to agree with the national courts that in this case, value judgments did not have “sufficient factual basis”, and rejected the argument that “a few individual statements had to be tolerated during a lively discussion”. In the judges’ view, “it is not compatible with Article 10 of the Convention to pack incriminating statements into the wrapping of an otherwise acceptable expression of opinion and deduce that this would render the statements exceeding the permissible limits of freedom of expression passable.” Finally, the Court took into account the very modest sanctions applied to the speaker.



As noted at the outset, it’s necessary to explain the context of this case – given that it seems to be widely misunderstood. First of all, the ECtHR is not an “EU court” applying EU law, but the court of 47 European countries applying the ECHR, an international treaty separate from EU law. EU law touches on religious issues when it comes to religious discrimination in employment (see the case law discussed here), animal welfare issues, or persecution of refugees on grounds of religion – but has nothing to do with the issue of prosecution for offending religious sensibilities.

Secondly, the ECtHR is in no sense applying “Sharia law” here. The complaint was not made by a Muslim organisation, but by an undercover journalist. The Austrian law was not enacted solely to protect the Islamic faith, but other faiths too; and it was not motivated by Islamic doctrine. The ECtHR distinguishes the Austrian law from a ban on “blasphemy”, considering that it requires an additional element. Nothing in the judges’ reasoning refers to “defaming” Mohamed (although the Austrian Supreme Court is quoted as using that term).  Nor does the Court require other countries to follow Austria’s lead: although it refers to positive obligations to protect freedom of religion, it does not spell out what they are, for the obvious reason that the applicant was not arguing a failure by Austria of any positive obligations in this case.

Thirdly, as my summary of the judgment sets out, there’s nothing unusual or exceptional about the underlying legal reasoning in the Court’s approach here. It’s applying its long-standing doctrine related to the balance between freedom of expression and freedom of religion. This is indeed an area where the “margin of appreciation”, giving considerable deference to States’ choices, has long been applied widely, although States do not always win. (Have a look at the cases linked to in the judgment, or the summary in this fact sheet, for more details: note that there are judgments arguably deferential to Christianity, not just Islam).

Finally, on the same point, it should be noted that the Court, sometimes criticised for being activist, is in this case conversely criticised for being deferentialto States. The judges leave the remedy for those who criticise the law in Austria (or similar laws elsewhere) as the political process in Austria, rather than the remote court in Strasbourg. But those who usually criticise foreign judges’ interference now seem disappointed that those foreign judges didn’t interfere to effectively endorse their own criticism of Islam.

Assessment of the judgment

Although some of the Court’s critics seem to have misunderstood the context of the judgment, I would agree that there is a lot in the judgment to criticise. What I would question here is both the Court’s application of its “margin of appreciation” doctrine to the facts of this case, and its failure to reconsider that doctrine in general. On the first point, while I agree that the small fine is relevant, it’s odd that the Court however fails to consider the absence of any complaint by a Muslim organisation as such, given that its reasoning turns on the importance of the objective of ensuring religious peace. Its distinction between marrying one child and a preference for children in general comes across as sophistry. And its concern that anyone could have attended the political seminar overlooks the broader context of an Internet full of critics of Islam: if the problem is a forest, does it make sense to prosecute an individual tree?

On the Court’s failure to reconsider its doctrine in general, there’s a procedural point here: the judgment was delivered by a small Chamber of few judges, not a Grand Chamber with many more; and only the Grand Chamber has the authority to reconsider long-standing jurisprudence. (The applicant can request the Grand Chamber to review this Chamber judgment). But I would hope that the Grand Chamber has the opportunity to do so, and uses it. Here’s why.

As a confirmed agnostic who attends Catholic mass, I can see the conflict of rights here in personal terms. Faith is at the core of many people’s personal identity. It inspires the spiritual, explains the inexplicable, and consoles the inconsolable; it provides a community to celebrate the breaking of fasts, the liberation from slavery or the miracle of resurrection. It celebrates birth, codifies life, and commemorates death – yet offers hope of immortality.

Yet I can see why some wish to condemn one faith, or all faiths. There’s no shortage of abuse, discrimination, persecution, hatred or violence based on religion. And some generally believe that all religions are nonsense: that in a scientific age, with lots of suffering before death that we should be concerned about, it’s long past time to go cold turkey on the opiate of the masses.

My answer to the potential conflict of rights is to respect others’ right to believe what they want to believe (or not believe). But others have a different view. And freedom of speech is not just the freedom to calm people down: it’s also the freedom to wind people up, turn people on, or piss people off.

The flaw with the Court’s traditional case law is that it places too much priority on the right not to be offended, and not enough on the right to offend. Indeed, the Court quotes – but does not explicitly follow – a reportfrom the Venice Commission, which recommends that States should abolish the offence of blasphemy or religious insult (the latter, with added elements, seems to be the basis of its recent judgment) and rely solely instead on incitement to hatred. I would go further still, and criminalise only incitement to hatred which advocates violence or other criminality.

So “Muslims are vile; let’s attack them” should be criminal; as should the attack itself, or the criminal damage entailed by a swastika drawn on a synagogue. I take the point that swastikas don’t draw themselves, and that if someone merely says “Muslims are vile”, his listeners may well add “let’s attack them” in their own minds and act on it. But there needs to be a line drawn somewhere; a whole range of statements could trigger a potentially violent listener, so we have to exercise some judgement as to which statements should reasonably be criminalised.

Moreover, incriminating many critics of Islam (or others considered intolerant) who don’t directly advocate violence doesn’t solve the problem of intolerance; it fuels it, allowing those critics to parade themselves as free speech advocates, or even martyrs.  Prosecuting them for non-violent statements simply attracts more attention to their views. (This is also an answer to the valid “it’s easy to advocate freedom of speech when you’re not the target” arguments).

Two important qualifications, though. First of all, the freedom of expression is not a right to a platform: there’s no legal obligation for the mainstream media or social networks, for instance, to give any particular view uncritical attention, or any attention at all. Secondly, freedom of expression works both ways (that’s rather the point): it’s equally applicable to those who want to mock or react to Islamophobes or their ilk, and criticising someone’s views is not the same as “silencing” them. There’s nothing quite as pathetic as (for instance) the sight of the supporters of Trump’s crassness and intolerance crying crocodile tears in reaction to a comedian making a joke about his press secretary’s eye-shadow.

Ultimately, though, the problem with banning non-violent criticism of religion isn’t just about tactics; it’s about the paradox of intolerance. It’s logically impossible to preach tolerance while saying that dissenting views should be banned – even if those views are not very tolerant themselves. Fundamentally, a good idea – whether religious or secular – should speak for itself, not shut its critics up.  

Barnard & Peers: chapter 9
Photo: Islamic Centre, Vienna; photo credit:

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