Global Freedom of Expression

The Case of Attila Bartha

Closed Contracts Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Audio / Visual Broadcasting
  • Date of Decision
    April 17, 2014
  • Outcome
    Affirmed Lower Court
  • Case Number
  • Region & Country
    Hungary, Europe and Central Asia
  • Judicial Body
    Constitutional Court
  • Type of Law
    Constitutional Law, Election Law
  • Themes
    Content Regulation / Censorship, Political Expression
  • Tags

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

In the 2014 general elections, Attila Bartha ran for office as candidate MP in the electoral district No. 03 of Budapest. Bartha was supported by a newly funded political party, Fourth Republic (4K!). The party released a campaign video starring a monkey that impersonated the former prime ministers of Hungary. The local public service television channel refused to broadcast the spot. Bartha sought legal remedies. Both the No. 03 Electoral District Election Committee and the National Election Committee found that the spot violated human dignity and the general principles of the 2013 Act on Election Procedure XXXVI. This decision was affirmed by the Curia.

The rules of the election procedure enabled Bartha to turn to the Constitutional Court before the date of the elections. The Court found that the spot was dehumanizing and constituted a violation of human dignity, and therefore, it refused his claim to annul the decision of the Curia.


The applicant of the case, Mr. Attila Bartha was a candidate running for office during the 2014 general elections. His party, Fourth Republic (4K!) published a campaign video starring a monkey figure dressed in a military uniform. When the monkey figure spoke, political speeches of two former prime ministers—both running for office on the same elections—were played. The spot implied that a new political formation such as 4K! was needed because all other political parties had lost their credibility. The public service media television channel that aired in the Budapest election district where Bartha ran for office refused to broadcast the spot on the basis that it violated its Code of Ethics.

In March 2014, Bartha turned to the Budapest No. 03 Electoral District Election Committee with a plea arguing that the ban violated the Act on Election Procedure XXXVI. The Election Committee found that the decision of the media outlet was in accordance with the law since the video violated the human dignity of the portrayed politicians, and consequently, the general principle of acting in a good faith laid down in the Election Procedure Act. Later in March 2014, the candidate appealed to the National Election Committee that upheld the decision.

On April 1, 2014, he turned to the Curia, which found that identifying a person with an animal is always dehumanizing and that the ad therefore constituted a violation of human dignity. On 14 April 2014, Bartha turned to the Constitutional Court of Hungary with a complaint arguing that the decision of the Curia violated his right to free expression.

Decision Overview

The Constitutional Court of Hungary delivered a unanimous decision.

In his constitutional complaint, Bartha argued that the decision of the Curia violated his right to free expression guaranteed in Article IX of the Fundamental Law of Hungary. He pointed out that the two persons invoked in the spot were prime ministers, leaders of the country—one of them served his term at the time, and both of them were competing in the current electoral period. Their holding of public office meant that they had to tolerate even the harshest criticism in connection to their public capacity. He stated that the aim of the spot was not to humiliate but to criticize in a humorous way. Bartha referred to the fact that the Curia failed to examine these factors when coming to a decision. He also pointed out that the Curia examined whether he exercised his right to free speech in accordance with the principle of “intended exercise of rights,” while Article I paragraph 3 of the Fundamental Law clearly states that the proportionality test has to be used when evaluating a limitation of a fundamental right.

In its decision, the Constitutional Court reiterated that freedom of expression has an outstanding position even among fundamental rights. This prominent role has a double foundation: on the one hand it is “essential for fulfilling personal autonomy” while it is also “the foundation of a democratic and pluralistic society”. [para. 13] The Court also referred to its practice according to which “freedom of expression requires a special protection when it affects the conduct of those who exercise public power”. [para. 13] However, it also noted that in some cases concerning freedom of expression the Court has to give ground to the right to human dignity as it is expressed in Article IX paragraph 4 of the Fundamental Law, but this restriction must be necessary and proportionate. [para . 14]

The main question, according to the Court, was whether identifying another candidate with a monkey falls under the protection of freedom of expression. [para. 16] The Court agreed with the Curia in the aspect that portraying candidates as animals was dehumanizing. [para. 17] The Court stressed that there is a limit to acceptable criticism, even in relation to people who exercise state power. This limit is the “substantial, untouchable core of their human dignity”. [para. 17] According to the Court, the spot violated this substantial core, and was banned in accordance with Article II and Article IX paragraph 4 of the Fundamental Law.

Consequently, the Court dismissed the constitutional complaint.

Decision Direction

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Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Contracts Expression

This case contracts expression by limiting forms of permissible criticism with respect to public officials. As a result of this decision, politicians cannot be ridiculed by being portrayed as animals. According to the Court, this kind of “dehumanizing” criticism violates human dignity by definition.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

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