Walking on a High Wire: the European Court of Human Rights and the Challenge of Balancing the Rights to Freedom of Expression and the Protection of Religion/Belief under the ECHR.
The English actor and comedian Stephen Fry, whilst on Irish television in 2015, asked why he should “respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God” who is “utterly evil, capricious and monstrous”.1 His comments provoked widely contrasting responses. These ranged from an Irish police investigation into his alleged blasphemy,2 to the shortlisting of the programme for a broadcasting award.3 Fry’s case neatly illustrates the very different reactions that such cases typically evoke, and demonstrates how broadcasters, as well as law and policy makers more generally, must effectively walk a ‘high wire’ in balancing the free expression rights of those who wish to attack religion/belief, and the rights of those who object to their religion/beliefs being so condemned.
This ‘high wire’ challenge is the subject matter of our chapter. In it we focus on the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR/Convention) and examine how the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR/Court) has protected ‘beliefs’ (rather than believers per se) from ridicule, vilification and attack.4
The structure of this chapter is as follows. We start by examining, briefly, some possible reasons for the recent increase in ‘freedom of expression/religious sensibilities’ disputes. Next, we turn to the case-law of the ECtHR, focusing on the main cases that have come to the attention of Europe’s primary human rights court in this area. Finally, this chapter ends with our conclusion, in which we critique the metaphorical ‘high wire’ walking strategy of the ECtHR.
Author affiliationLeicester Law School
- VoR (Version of Record)