By banning ads featuring characters resembling Jesus and St. Mary, Lithuania unreasonably restricted free speech and the freedom of expression, concluded the ECtHR in the case of Sekmadienis Ltd. v. Lithuania.
The Lithuanian authorities acted unreasonably when they fined Sekmadienis Ltd. for ads with people resembling religious characters, ruled the European Court of Human Rights. The State’s argument that it was trying protect believers’ feelings failed to persuade the judges.
The banned posters show young people clothed in designer R. Kalinkinas’s collection, with the slogans “Jesus, what trousers!”, “Dear Mary, what a dress!” and “Jesus [and] Mary, what are you wearing!” underneath.
Ads for Robertas Kalinkinas’s collection
In November of 2012 the State Inspectorate of Non-Food Products found the ads used religious symbols in a disrespectful and inappropriate manner, and thus could be seen as offensive to public honor and dignity.
With reference to these findings, the State Consumer Rights Protection Authority ruled that the ads violated the Law on Advertising with respect to public morals, fining the company 2,000 Litas (€579).
Sekmadienis Ltd. tried to appeal the fine, but was unsuccessful in court. The final judgment of the Supreme Administrative Court of Lithuania left the fine as it was, arguing that religious symbols were used inappropriately in the ads. According to the court, the form of advertising [chosen by the applicant company] did not conform to good morals and to the principles of respecting the values of the Christian faith and its sacred symbols.
In October of 2014, the Human Rights Monitoring Institute, representing the designer, applied to the ECtHR, claiming a violation of the freedom of expression.
Lithuanian authorities fail to persuade the ECtHR
After examining the case, the ECtHR found that Lithuania unreasonably restricted the freedom of expression of Sekmadienis UAB and thus violated Article 10 of ECHR.
Strasbourg strongly criticized the reasons of the Lithuanian advertising authority and the country’s courts for dismissing the appeals against the fine. According to the ECtHR, the authorities’ arguments were declarative and vague, and did not sufficiently explain what precisely was so offensive about these ads.
According to the ECHR, the Lithuanian authorities failed to balance the need to protect the feelings of believers with the applicant’s freedom of expression, giving absolute priority to the former.
The opinion of Judge De Gaetano was even harsher than that of the majority: “In the instant case, however, there was nothing in the three adverts in question (which, incidentally, can still be viewed online) which could, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered as either offensive, much less as amounting to any form of vilification of religion or religious symbols, and which could be construed as justifying an interference ‘for the protection of … the rights of others’”. According to the judge, there was no reason for this case to come to the authorities’ attention in the first place.
The company that created the ad was awarded with €580 in damages.