The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) [official website] on Tuesday held [decision, in French] that Spain violated Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights [text, PDF] when the country convicted two of its citizens, Enric Stern Taulats and Jaume Roura Capellera, for setting fire to photograph of the nation’s royal couple stating that the “conviction amounted to an interference with their right to freedom of expression.”
Capellera and Taulats set fire during to an upside-down picture of Spain’s King Felipe and Queen Letizia during a public demonstration in 2007 while the King was on an official visit to Girona. Afterwards, both individuals were convicted and sentenced to 15 months in prison for insulting the Crown.
The judge subsequently made the imprisonment conditional on failure to pay to a €2,700 fine. Capellera and Taulats paid the fine but appealed the judgment all the way to Spain’s Constitutional Court which ruled against them [press release] concluding that the charges against them “fell outside the scope of freedom of expression and freedom of opinion, given that the applicants had been guilty of incitement to hatred and violence against the King and the monarchy.”
The two individuals then filed a complaint with ECHR arguing that their conviction amounted to an “unjustified interference with their right to freedom of expression” under Article 10 of the convention, and violation of freedom of thought, conscience and religion under Article 9 when read in conjunction with Article 10.
Agreeing with Capellera and Taulats’s position on Article 10 of the Convention, the ECHR stated [press release]:
First of all, the applicants’ act had been part of a political, rather than personal, critique of the institution of monarchy in general, and in particular of the Kingdom of Spain as a nation. … a denunciation of what the King represented as the Head and the symbol of the State apparatus and the forces which, according to the applicants, had occupied Catalonia – which fell within the sphere of political criticism or dissidence and corresponded to the expression of rejection of the monarchy as an institution. … freedom of expression extended to “information” and “ideas” that offended, shocked or disturbed: such were the demands of pluralism, tolerance and broad-mindedness, without which there was no “democratic society”.
The ECHR also criticized the Constitutional Court’s classification of Capellera and Taulats’s act as one that “could reasonably be construed as incitement to hatred or violence.” Even though the act in question involved burning an image of the figurehead of the State, the ECHR stated this is not an act that should be construed as inciting anyone to commit acts of violence against the King and that “an act of this type should be interpreted as the symbolic expression of dissatisfaction and protest.”
The ECHR particularly noted the imposition of a criminal penalty for this act as “an interference with freedom of expression which had been neither proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued nor necessary in a democratic society.”
Having found a violation under Article 10 of the convention, the ECHR found it unnecessary to rule on the Article 9 claim and stated that Spain must pay Capellera and Taulats €11,700 (reimbursement for the €2,700 fine and litigation costs).