Recent Scholarship: Analysis of European Court of Human Rights Free Speech Ruling

Last week, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Austria had the right to convict a woman for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. The woman had argued that the Austrian government had violated her freedom of speech under the 1953 European Convention on Human Rights, but the Strasbourg-based court found that the Austrian court had properly balanced her rights with the state’s interest in preserving religious peace. Some commentators have falsely claimed that this is an example of an EU body upholding Islamic law. However, as Steve Peers of the University of Essex wrote on the EU Law Analysis blog:

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. …

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).

Read more at the EU Law Analysis blog.