Hate speech decision on Le Pen

Professor Dirk Voorhoof (Ghent University) has a post on ECHR Blog commenting last weeks’s ECtHR’s decision in the case of Le Pen v. France, the president of the French “National Front” party.


The ECtHR is of the opinion that the French authorities’ interference with Mr Le Pen’s freedom of expression, in the form of a criminal conviction, had been prescribed by law (Art. 23-24 of the French Press Freedom Act, Loi sur la Liberté de la Presse) and pursued the legitimate aim of protecting the reputation or rights of others. Again it was crucial to decide whether or not the conviction of Mr Le Pen was to be considered necessary in a democratic society, taking into account the importance of freedom of expression in the context of political debate in a democratic society. The Court reiterated that freedom of expression applied not only to “information” or “ideas” that were favourably received, but also to those that offended, shocked or disturbed. Furthermore, anyone who engaged in a debate on a matter of public interest could resort to a degree of exaggeration, or even provocation, provided that they respected the reputation and rights of others. When the person concerned was an elected representative, like Mr Le Pen, who represented his voters, took up their concerns and defended their interests, the Court has to exercise the strictest supervision of this kind of interferences with freedom of expression.

Le Pen’s statements had been made in the context of a general debate on the problems linked to the settlement and integration of immigrants in their host countries. Moreover, the varying scale of the problems concerned, which could sometimes generate misunderstanding and incomprehension, required considerable latitude to be left to the State in assessing the need for interference with a person’s freedom of expression. In this case, however, Mr Le Pen’s comments had certainly presented the Muslim community as a whole in a disturbing light likely to give rise to feelings of rejection and hostility. He had set the French on the one hand against a community whose religious convictions were explicitly mentioned and whose rapid growth was presented as an already latent threat to the dignity and security of the French people.

The reasons given by the domestic courts for convicting Mr Le Pen had thus been relevant and sufficient. Nor had the penalty imposed been disproportionate. The Court recognises that a fine of 10.000 euros is an important amount, but reminds that Le Pen under French law had risked a sentence to imprisonment. Therefore the Court did not consider the sanction to be disproportionate. On these grounds the Court found that the interference with Mr Le Pen’s enjoyment of his right to freedom of expression had been “necessary in a democratic society”. The complaint of Mr. Le Pen was accordingly rejected.

The decision of 20 April 2010 in the case of Le Pen v. France is fully in line with the case law of the ECtHR not accepting ‘hate speech’ as part of public or political debate being protected under Article 10 of the Convention.


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