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Free Speech versus Religious Feelings, the Sequel: Defamation of the Prophet Muhammad in E.S. v Austria

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 May 2019


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Case Notes
© 2019 The Authors 

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Assistant Professor of Constitutional Law at Hasselt University and Senior Research Associate to the Laureate Program in Comparative Constitutional Law at Melbourne Law School.

ECtHR 25 October 2018, Case No. 38450/12, E.S. v Austria


1 ECtHR 20 September 1994, Case No. 13470/87, Otto-Preminger-Institut v Austria (henceforth Otto-Preminger).

2 ECtHR 25 October 2018, Case No. 38450/12, E.S. v Austria.

3 Art. 188 Criminal Code (Austria).

4 See, among others, G. Wood, ‘In Europe, Speech Is an Alienable Right’, The Atlantic, 27 October 2018, <>, visited 1 February 2019; E. Bougiakiotis, ‘E.S. v Austria: Blasphemy Laws and the Double Standards of the European Court of Human Rights’, UK Constitutional Law Blog, 22 November 2018, <>, visited 1 February 2019; M. Milanovic, ‘Legitimizing Blasphemy Laws Through the Backdoor: The European Court’s Judgment in E.S. v. Austria’, EJIL: Talk!, 29 October 2018, <>, visited 1 February 2019.

5 Milanovic, supra n. 4.

6 Ibid.

7 Ireland recently made the move from tolerance to acceptance of blasphemous speech. In a 26 October 2018 constitutional referendum, the country’s population voted to abolish the ‘constitutional crime’ of blasphemy in Art. 40.6(1) of the Irish Constitution. Art. 40.6(1) read, in relevant part, ‘[t]he publication or utterance of blasphemous … matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law’. For discussion, see S. Smet, ‘The Pragmatic Case for Legal Tolerance’, 39 Oxford Journal of Legal Studies (forthcoming).

8 See, for instance, Art. 188 Criminal Code (Austria), which was applied by the Austrian courts in E.S. Art. 188 reads, in relevant part: ‘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 [...] shall be liable to up to six months’ imprisonment or a day-fine for a period of up to 360 days’ [emphasis added]. In E.S., the Austrian courts interpreted the reference to justified indignation as equivalent to the Strasbourg Court’s emphasis on offence to religious feelings.

9 E.S., supra n. 2, para. 42; Otto-Preminger, supra n. 1, para. 47.

10 The citation combines E.S., supra n. 2, para. 43 and Otto-Preminger, supra n. 1, paras. 47 and 49.

11 Milanovic, supra n. 4.

12 E.S. is not even the first judgment concerning controversial statements about the Prophet Muhammad and Aisha. That honour belongs to I.A. v Turkey. See ECtHR 13 September 2005, Case No. 42571/98, I.A. v Turkey.

13 Subsequent important judgments in this line of case law include I.A., supra n. 12 and ECtHR 31 January 2006, Case No. 64016/00, Giniewski v France.

14 The description is taken from Otto-Preminger, supra n. 1, para. 22.

15 Ibid., paras. 47 and 55.

16 Ibid., para. 55. On conflicts between human rights, both in general and in the case law of the Strasbourg Court in particular, see Smet, S., Resolving Conflicts between Human Rights: The Judge’s Dilemma (Routledge, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

17 Otto-Preminger, supra n. 1, para. 55.

18 Ibid., para. 56.

19 Ibid., para. 49.

20 But see Evans, M.D., ‘From Cartoons to Crucifixes: Current Controversies Concerning the Freedom of Religion and the Freedom of Expression before the European Court of Human Rights’, in E.D. Reed and M. Dumper (eds.), Civil Liberties, National Security and Prospects for Consensus: Legal, Philosophical and Religious Perspectives (Cambridge University Press 2012) p. 83 CrossRefGoogle Scholar , p. 85 and 91 (arguing that ‘the basic approach outlined by the Court [in Otto-Preminger-Institut and later judgments] has considerable merit’ and ‘seems to work rather well’).

21 Tsakyrakis, S., ‘Proportionality: An Assault on Human Rights?’, 7 International Journal of Constitutional Law (2009) p. 468 CrossRefGoogle Scholar at p. 482.

22 Ibid., p. 481.

23 Letsas, G., ‘Is there a Right not to be Offended in One’s Religious Beliefs?’, in L. Zucca and C. Ungureanu (eds.), Law, State and Religion in Europe: Debates and Dilemmas (Cambridge University Press 2012) p. 239 CrossRefGoogle Scholar at p. 240.

24 Klatt, M. and Meister, M., The Constitutional Structure of Proportionality (Oxford University Press 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

25 Dissenting opinion of Justices Palm, Pekkanen and Makarczyk in Otto-Preminger, supra n. 1, para. 9.

26 Bougiakiotis, supra n. 4.

27 Milanovic, supra n. 4.

28 E.S., supra n. 2, para. 7.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid., para. 8.

31 Ibid., para. 13.

32 Ibid., para. 12.

33 Ibid., paras. 17 and 21.

34 Ibid., paras. 14-22.

35 Ibid., paras. 15 and 22.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid., paras. 14-15 and 18.

38 Ibid., paras. 18 and 22.

39 Ibid., para. 52.

40 Ibid., para. 43.

41 Ibid., para. 46.

42 Ibid., para. 50.

43 Ibid., para. 52.

44 Ibid., para. 54.

45 The Court’s defamation case law essentially concerns clashes between the freedom of expression of Art. 10 ECHR and the right to protection of reputation, as guaranteed by Art. 8 ECHR. In Axel Springer AG v Germany, the Grand Chamber of the Court listed a limited set of criteria to guide the balancing exercise between those two Convention rights. See ECtHR 7 February 2012, Case No. 39954/08, Axel Springer AG v Germany. One of the Court’s balancing criteria evaluates the veracity of the published information (that is, the truth value of the statements at issue). To evaluate the veracity of allegedly defamatory claims, the Court has long drawn a distinction between statements of fact and value judgments. Although both categories of statements require a factual basis, the Court evaluates the requisite factual basis more stringently in the case of statements of fact (which are susceptible to proof) than value judgments (which are not susceptible to proof, but still need to find sufficient support in a factual basis). For an overview of the most pertinent case law, see European Court of Human Rights, Factsheet – Protection of Reputation, November 2018, <>, visited 1 February 2019.

46 Neither in Otto-Preminger, supra n. 1, nor in the subsequent judgments I.A., supra n. 12; Giniewski, supra n. 13; ECtHR 25 November 1996, Case No. 17419/90, Wingrove v The United Kingdom; ECtHR 2 May 2006, Case No. 50692/99, Aydin Tatlav v Turkey.

47 E.S., supra n. 2, paras. 47-48.

48 For the first proposition, the Court cites ECtHR 26 April 1994, Case No. 15974/90, Prager and Oberschlick v Austria. For the second proposition, it cites ECtHR 27 February 2001, Case No. 26958/95, Jerusalem v Austria and ECtHR 12 July 2001, Case No. 29032/95, Feldek v Slovakia.

49 E.S., supra n. 2, para. 53.

50 Ibid., para. 57.

51 Ibid., para. 49 (citing ECtHR 7 February 2012, Case Nos. 40660/08 and 60641/08, Von Hannover v Germany (No. 2)).

52 Wood, supra n. 4.

53 See, for instance, Su, A., ‘Judging Religious Sincerity’, 5 Oxford Journal of Law and Religion (2016) p. 25 CrossRefGoogle Scholar ; Martinez-Torrón, J., ‘ Fernández Martínez v Spain: An Unclear Intersection of Rights’, in S. Smet and E. Brems (eds.), When Human Rights Clash at the European Court of Human Rights: Conflict or Harmony? (Oxford University Press 2017) p. 192 Google Scholar ; Vickers, L., ‘Freedom of Religion or Belief and Employment Law’, 12 Religion & Human Rights (2017) p. 164 CrossRefGoogle Scholar . For discussion in the context of US constitutional law, where this debate is particularly prominent, see Garnett, R.W., ‘A Hands-off Approach to Religious Doctrine: What Are We Talking About?’, 84 Notre Dame Law Review (2009) p. 837 Google Scholar .

54 See, among others, ECtHR 13 February 2003, Case Nos. 41340/98 et al., Refah Partisi (The Welfare Party) v Turkey, para. 91; ECtHR 15 January 2013, Case Nos. 48420/10 et al., Eweida v The United Kingdom, para. 81.

55 Milanovic, supra n. 4; Bougiakiotis, supra n. 4.

56 E.S., supra n. 2, para. 49.

57 Milanovic, supra n. 4.

58 At the time of writing (31 January 2019), the deadline of three months for submitting a referral request has passed, but the ECtHR has not yet updated the Chamber judgment in E.S. in its HUDOC database. As a result, it is impossible to say with certainty whether or not a referral request has been submitted (although it seems unlikely). The reader is advised to consult the Chamber judgment in HUDOC to determine whether: (a) it has become final; or (b) a referral request is pending.

59 See, for instance, Horton, J., ‘Why the traditional conception of toleration still matters’, 14 Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy (2011) p. 289 CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

60 For discussion, see Smet, supra n. 7.

61 See, for instance, ECtHR 1 July 2014, Case No. 43835/11, S.A.S. v France, para. 128.

62 Nevertheless, as I demonstrate elsewhere, the notion of tolerance does have an impact on the interpretation of religious freedom in constitutional law. See S. Smet, ‘Constitutional Interpretation of Religious Freedom in India, Israel and the United States: Tolerating the Sinner or Respecting the Devotee?’ (unpublished manuscript, on file with the author).

63 See, for instance, High Court of Justice (Israel) 18 June 2001, Case No. 1514/01, Gur Aryeh v Second Television and Radio Authority.

64 Ibid., para. 6.

65 High Court of Justice (Israel) 13 April 1997, Case No. 5016/96, Horev v Minister of Transportation, para. 50.

66 Ibid.

67 Gur Aryeh, supra n. 63, paras. 6 and 8.

68 This would be entirely in line with the ‘procedural turn’ in the Court’s wider case law. See O.M. Arnardóttir, ‘The “Procedural Turn” under the European Convention on Human Rights and Presumptions of Convention Compliance’, 15 International Journal of Constitutional Law (2017) p. 9.

69 E.S., supra n. 2, para. 43.

70 Ibid., para. 50.

71 Ibid., para. 52.

72 Ibid., para. 53.

73 Milanovic, supra n. 4 (concluding that in E.S. ‘the Court eroded the freedom of speech while doing nothing meaningful for religious tolerance’).

74 Dissenting opinion of Judges Costa, Cabral Barreto and Jungwiert in I.A., supra n. 12, para. 9.

75 In Otto-Preminger, supra n. 1, para. 56 (read together with para. 52), the Court made a point of noting that Roman Catholics constituted 87% of the population in Tyrol (where the film was to be screened).

76 See critical responses to among others S.A.S., supra n. 61; ECtHR 10 November 2005, Case No. 44774/98, Leyla Şahin v Turkey; ECtHR 15 February 2001, Case No. 42393/98 Dahlab v Switzerland.