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Legitimizing Blasphemy Laws Through the Backdoor: The European Court’s Judgment in E.S. v. Austria

Published on October 29, 2018        Author: 

This past weekend Irish voters decided, by an overwhelming majority, to amend the Irish Constitution so as to decriminalize blasphemy. Just a few days before this referendum, however, a unanimous Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights gave its blessing to the criminalization of blasphemy, in all but name, in its judgment in E.S. v. Austria, no. 38450/12.

I have now read this judgment several times. Each time I read it I was left more disturbed. It applies the Court’s previous troubling precedents in this context – such as the notorious judgment in Otto-Preminger-Institut v. Austria – wholly uncritically, while even going beyond them in policing offensive speech. It unpersuasively tries to draw a distinction between blasphemy laws, which categorically impermissibly infringe on the freedom of speech, and the Austrian law at issue, as interpreted and applied by Austrian courts, which according to the Court strikes the right balance between the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. As I will explain, the Court’s distinctions are essentially meaningless and incapable of being applied in any non-arbitrary way, leading us not to a slippery slope of a further erosion of free speech, but to a cliff. Its reasoning lacks rigour and fetishizes the national margin of appreciation. Worst of all, the judgment will likely do nothing to promote religious tolerance in Europe, but will only help to further the narrative of Islamophobic closet neo-Nazis (who are, by the way, already in power in Austria, and not for the first time) that they are free speech martyrs , victimized in their own country by horrible minorities, elites and human rights lawyers.

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