Last week the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights delivered a major judgment in the case of Mouvement raëlien suisse v. Switzerland, no. 16354/06. This will certainly prove to be a leading European case with regard to content and viewpoint based restrictions on the freedom of expression in a public space. It is also notable because the Court was very severely split – 9 to 8 – which is not only a rarity, but highlights the controversial nature of the case and its uncertain precedential value for the future.
Very briefly, these were the facts: the Raelian movement is an organization that claims that aliens have visited the Earth, leaving us a message or two; that science (well, their science) should replace religion; and that the best form of government is a ‘geniocracy’, i.e. rule by the highly intelligent over the masses of the mediocre. The organization has been labeled a cult by many due to the demands it makes of its members; it has also been the subject of several child abuse scandals, since the organization’s founder apparently thought that children should be sexualized, and some of the organization’s leaders practiced what he preached. Today, however, the organization disavows that earlier part of their doctrine.
Here’s the Court’s own description of the particular facts of the case:
14. On 7 March 2001 the applicant association requested authorisation from the police administration for the city of Neuchâtel (the “police administration”) to conduct a poster campaign in the period between 2 and 13 April 2001. The poster in question, measuring 97 cm by 69 cm, featured in the upper part the following wording in large yellow characters on a dark blue background: “The Message from Extraterrestrials”; in the lower part of the poster, in characters of the same size but in bolder type, the address of the Raelian Movement’s website, together with a telephone number in France, could be seen; at the very bottom was the phrase “Science at last replaces religion”. The middle of the poster was taken up by pictures of extraterrestrials’ faces and a pyramid, together with a flying saucer and the Earth.
15. On 29 March 2001 the police administration denied authorisation, referring to two previous refusals. It had been indicated in a French parliamentary report on sects, dating from 1995, and in a judgment of the president of the Civil Court for the district of La Sarine (Canton of Fribourg), that the Raelian Movement engaged in activities that were contrary to public order (ordre public) and immoral.
16. In a decision of 19 December 2001 the municipal council of the city of Neuchâtel dismissed an appeal from the applicant association, finding that it could not rely on the protection of religious freedom because it was to be regarded as a dangerous sect. The interference with freedom of expression had been based on Article 19 of the Administrative Regulations for the City of Neuchâtel (the “Regulations”); its purpose was to protect the public interest and it was proportionate, since the organisation advocated, among other things, human cloning, “geniocracy” and “sensual meditation”.
The decision was later upheld by the Swiss courts, essentially on the same grounds.
The question that the European Court was to answer was thus whether this ban was in accordance with the freedom of expression under Article 10 ECHR. Notably, the restriction on expression was based on both the content and the viewpoint of the message, seen not only as the pretty anodyne poster, but as the poster taken together with the content of the website to which it refers. However, the restriction on expression was not total, but was confined to the organization’s use of a dedicated public space, to which individuals do not have unconditional or unlimited access.