Brzeziński v Poland, Application No. 47542/07
Date of judgment: 25 July 2019
Court: European Court of Human Rights
Relevance of the judgment
The case concerned an allegation that during the applicant’s political campaign for municipal councillor, he had made false statements against the current mayor and members of the municipal council, implying that they had acted fraudulently. The domestic courts had interdicted the applicant from making those statements, and ordered him to rectify the incorrect information and offer a public apology.
On consideration before the European Court of Human Rights (European Court), it was held that the domestic authorities had violated the applicant’s right to freedom of expression. The European Court emphasised the importance of political speech, and noted that the limits of acceptable criticism were wider with regard to a politician than with a private individual. The European Court held that the contested statements had remained within the limits of admissible exaggeration or provocation, having regard to the ordinary tone and register of political debate. As such, the European Court concluded that the decisions issued against the applicant amounted to a disproportionate interference with his right to freedom of expression.
During a political campaign for local elections, the applicant – who was standing for the post of municipal councillor – issued a brochure, in which he criticised the way in which the municipality was run. This focused primarily on the mayor and the members of the municipal council, and implied that the municipal council had concluded an agreement with the sole aim of profiting from the posts that they held.
The mayor applied for an interdict to prevent the dissemination of the brochure, and sought an order obliging the applicant to rectify the incorrect information and offer a public apology. The domestic regional courts granted the order against the applicant, noting that he had implied that fraud had been committed in the allocation of public grants despite these facts having not been established.
Judgment of the European Court
Before the European Court, the applicant argued that there had been a breach of his right to freedom of expression in terms of article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (European Convention). The European Court noted in this regard that there was little scope under the European Convention for restrictions on political speech or on the debate of questions of public interest. As explained by the European Court, the limits of acceptable criticism were wider with regard to a politician than with a private individual.
According to the European Court, the domestic courts had immediately classified the contested remarks in the brochure as lies that damaged the reputation of the mayor and the members of the municipal council. However, it the contested statements had been made in the context of a debate on issues which were important for the local community.
Importantly, the European Court held that it could not endorse the domestic courts’ finding that the applicant was required prove the truth of his statements. This was because the language used in the brochure had remained within the limits of admissible exaggeration or provocation, having regard to the ordinary tone and register of the political debate at the local level. In the light of the above considerations, the European Court held that the domestic courts had failed to strike a fair balance between the need to protect the applicant’s right to freedom of expression and the complainants’ rights and reputation.
The European Court was further of the view that the penalty that the domestic courts had imposed on the applicant could have an inhibiting effect on political debate. It therefore concluded that the decisions issued against the applicant amounted to a disproportionate interference with his right to freedom of expression, had not been necessary in a democratic society, and amounted to a violation of article 10 of the European Convention.
The media summary is accessible in English here.
The full judgment is accessible in French here.
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