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Rights court fines Lithuania for putting warning label on LGBT children’s book

Author Neringa Macatė died in 2020 but her mother has continued her fight for free expression before the European Court of Human Rights.

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — Europe’s top rights court sided with a deceased Lithuanian children’s book author on Monday in a dispute stemming from the government's view that gay fairy tales harm children. 

The European Court of Human Rights ruled that Lithuania's decision to restrict the publication of a fairy tale collection by author Neringa Macatė was discriminatory as it showed the preference of authorities for opposite-sex marriage over same-sex unions. The Strasbourg-based court also found the government violated her freedom of expression.

"Amber Heart," a collection of six modern fairy tales, used traditional motifs from classical works but featured marginalized groups, including characters with disabilities, nomadic Roma people and same-sex couples. The book was published by the Lithuanian University of Education in 2013. 

It was withdrawn a year later, following complaints from conservative groups who argued the book’s same-sex couples were harmful to children. The book was reissued in 2015 but with a label warning that it might be harmful to children under 14, based on a recommendation from a government inspector.

Macatė, who published under the name Neringa Dangvydė,  sued the university, arguing the publisher's reaction was discriminatory. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of Lithuania dismissed the case, finding the warning label was needed to comply with 2009 legislation, the Law on the Protection of Minors Against the Detrimental Effect of Public Information, which held that same-sex marriage content is harmful to children. 

In 2019, Macatė lodged a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, arguing the restrictions placed on her book violated her civil rights. The European Convention of Human Rights, the 1953 treaty that underpins the court, protects the civil and political rights of Europeans. 

The 17-judge panel was unequivocal Monday in ruling for the late author, who died in 2020.

“Equal and mutual respect for persons of different sexual orientations is inherent in the whole fabric of the Convention,” the Grand Chamber wrote. 

The court already ruled in 2010 that discussing gay relationships was not harmful to children. 

“There is no scientific evidence or sociological data … suggesting that the mere mention of homosexuality, or open public debate about sexual minorities' social status, would adversely affect children,” the court wrote in Alekseyev v. Russia, a case brought by LGBT activist Nikolay Alexeyev after he was banned from organizing a gay rights march in Moscow. 

In a landmark ruling last week, the court held countries that signed the 1953 treaty are obliged to give same-sex relationships legal protections. 

In an interview with Lithuanian news outlet Lrytas in 2014, Macatė said she had never intended to stir up controversy with her book.

“What I am writing about is aspiration, a horizon to which we are approaching step by step,” the author said. 

After a long illness, Macatė died in March 2020. She was only 45. In her obituary from the International Board on Books for Young People – an international nonprofit advocating for children’s literature, of which Macatė was a member – she is described as truly loving the genre. The obituary said she "is one of the few personalities who raised the highest standards for literature for children and teenagers."

The court ordered Lithuanian to pay Macatė’s mother, who has continued the case since her daughter’s death, 17,000 euros ($18,400) in damages. 

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