European Court Won't Tolerate Blasphemy as Free Speech

European Parliament Building in Brussels

The next time that any Hollywood studio wishes to distribute a film or television show in Europe that makes a sacrilegious statement, such expression may not necessarily be legally protected. On Thursday, the European Court of Human Rights handed down a decision concerning a statement deemed as likely to arouse religious intolerance.

The case concerned an Austrian who held two seminars on Islam. She discussed an alleged marriage between the Prophet Muhammad and a 6-year-old girl, and commented, "What do we call it, if it is not paedophilia?"

The woman was subsequently convicted for disparaging religious doctrines and ordered to pay a fine. The case then proceeded to appeal.

The European Court of Human Rights affirms the conviction.

"The Court noted that those who choose to exercise the freedom to manifest their religion under Article 9 of the Convention could not expect to be exempt from criticism," states the decision. "They must tolerate and accept the denial by others of their religious beliefs. Only where expressions under Article 10 went beyond the limits of a critical denial, and certainly where they were likely to incite religious intolerance, might a State legitimately consider them to be incompatible with respect for the freedom of thought, conscience and religion and take proportionate restrictive measures."

While nodding to the importance of context — the situation in a particular country — and affording some discretion for local authorities to evaluate whether statements are likely to disturb the religious peace, the European Court sees impermissible blasphemy here.

Specifically, it's upheld that the woman's statements "had been capable of arousing justified indignation; specifically, they had not been made in an objective manner contributing to a debate of public interest (e.g. on child marriage), but could only be understood as having been aimed at demonstrating that Muhammad was not worthy of worship."

What's more, the European Court agrees that the woman "must have been aware that her statements were partly based on untrue facts and apt to arouse indignation in others" and that she "subjectively labelled Muhammad with paedophilia as his general sexual preference, and that she failed to neutrally inform her audience of the historical background, which consequently did not allow for a serious debate on that issue."