THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Fining social media users who do not remove racist comments on their profiles is not a violation of their freedom of expression, Europe’s top rights court held on Monday.
Upholding a lower court ruling, the European Court of Human Rights sided with France, which fined Julien Sanchez of the far-right Front National party for not deleting anti-immigrant remarks from his public Facebook page.
Sanchez’s post, a dig at the website of his political opponent during France’s 2011 parliamentary elections, got more than a dozen replies, many complaining of Muslim immigrants.
“There’s not a street without a KEBAB SHOP and MOSQUE” one commentator wrote of the southern French city of Nîmes, where Sanchez’s opponent Franck Proust was serving as deputy mayor. “Drug trafficking run by the muslims rue des lombards, it’s been going on for years…” another wrote.
Proust’s wife, who was named in some of the comments, complained to the police. Sanchez and several of the commentators were convicted by the Nîmes Criminal Court in 2013 and the politician was ordered to pay 1,000 euro ($1,080) fine though he was not disqualified from the election. Proust had prevailed, beating Sanchez 57% to 42%.
The conviction was ultimately upheld by France’s Supreme Court, which ruled that Sanchez was responsible for the comments by allowing them to remain on his public Facebook wall.
Sanchez filed a complaint at the Strasbourg-based rights court, which was created in 1953 by the European Convention of Human Rights to uphold the political and civil rights of Europeans.
In 2021, the court’s Fifth Section sided with France. The seven-judge panel found that Sanchez had seen the comments and that they were still available weeks after being posted. Citing the “particular responsibility of politicians in combating hate speech,” the lower chamber found no violation of Sanchez’s rights.
The Grand Chamber agreed in Monday's ruling that Sanchez could be held liable for the comments made on his Facebook post.
“The applicant had been free to decide whether or not to make access to the 'wall' of his Facebook account public,” the court said, finding that his Facebook page was part of his campaign communication strategy and not a private discussion.
Not all human rights groups were happy with the ruling. Article 19, an organization that works to defend freedom of expression, was critical of the ECHR’s decision.
“Allowing states to hold some individuals liable for comments of others is extremely dangerous for freedom of expression online,” Barbora Bukovská, Article 19’s senior director for law and policy, said in a statement. She pointed out that such liability could put human rights groups at risk, allowing bad faith actors to target their comment sections with illegal remarks.
Despite Sanchez's conviction, the Strasbourg court noted that his penalty was relatively minor. He has continued working as a politician and is currently the spokesperson for his political party, now called National Rally.
In 2016, Sanchez attracted international media attention when he renamed a street in Beaucaire, where he serves as mayor, after Brexit. He told local media that decision to call the street "Rue du Brexit" was a way to “pay tribute to a sovereign people and leaders who have assumed their responsibilities.”Follow @mollyquell
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