(CN) – Laborers went too far in publishing an insulting cartoon of fellow workers, Europe’s top human rights court ruled, rejecting claims that their employer trampled free-speech and free-association rights by firing the culprits.
The decision hammers the final nail into a complaint brought by four fired deliverymen, who set up a trade union to ensure receipt of social security benefits as salaried workers of a bakery company in Barcelona, Spain.
They were fired for “serious misconduct” after publishing a labor union newsletter in 2002 that contained a cartoon showing certain employees providing sexual favors to the company’s director of human resources.
This image and an accompanying article referred in strong, vulgar language to certain workers, who had testified in favor of the company during a labor dispute.
A Catalonion high court had upheld the firings as balancing a work contract with the freedom of expression, and the Spanish Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal.
A panel of 17 judges with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, considered the laborers’ case. The 12-judge majority emphasized a distinction between criticism and insult, saying the workers had gone too far by targeting individuals in libelous publications that could harm their reputation.
Publication of the offensive cartoon overstepped the boundary of good faith, the majority opinion said, and dismissal of the workers was a proportionate response on the part of the company.
Five judges submitted a dissenting opinion that called that decision a “step backwards” from previous case law protecting human rights.
The dissenting opinion claimed the majority had played down the trade-union context of the conflict, saying freedom of speech had indeed been violated when the company retaliated for publishing content that would best be characterized as satire.
“It is precisely when ideas shock and offend that freedom of expression is most precious,” the dissenting opinion states.
The punishment of dismissal had been too harsh, the dissenting judges wrote, and could have a chilling effect on labor union activities.
The ruling was decided by the court’s grand chamber and is final. It will be transmitted to the Council of Europe for execution.