Defamation / Reputation, Hate Speech, Political Expression
Awan v. Levant
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During the military coup of 2009 in Honduras, four sitting justices from the Association of Judges for Democracy expressed their opposition against the overthrow of President Manuel Zelaya. In part, they participated in adopting a legal position on behalf of the association that publicly criticized the role of Honduras’ Supreme Court in ousting the president and paving the way for a military coup. On May 12, 2010, following an investigation against the judges by the Inspector of Tribunals, the Plenary of the Supreme Court ordered their dismissal, and later denied their petition for reconsideration. After an alleged undue delay in examining the dismissal by the Judicial Career Council, the judges filed a petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, alleging the violation of Articles 8 (right to fair trial), 13 (freedom of expression), 15 (freedom of assembly), 16 (freedom of association), and 25 (right to judicial protection) of the American Convention on Human Rights.
In its Report No. 103/13, the Commission found the Honduran government in violation of the above articles. Then in March 2014, it submitted the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights based on “the need to obtain justice.” The Court similarly found the government in violation of the judges’ rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association. It ordered that the judges to be reinstated into their positions and paid compensatory damages.
The present case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights arises out of the disciplinary measures against four Honduran judges: Adán Guillermo López Lone, Luis Alonso Chévez de la Rocha, Ramón Enrique Barrios Maldonado, and Magistrate Tirza del Carmen Flores Lanza during the 2009 military coup in the country, which ousted President Manuel Zelaya. They were all members of the Association of Judges for Democracy (AJD) and jointly participated in adopting a legal position, condemning the Supreme Court’s role in overthrowing the president and describing the coup as a process of “presidential succession” in accordance with the Constitution of Honduras.
Adán Guillermo López Lone was a judge and served as the President of the AJD. In July 2009, as a citizen and not in his official capacity, López Lone participated in a public demonstration that denounced the coup and called for the restoration of the rule of law. The peaceful protest was then repelled by the police, which provoked a stampede. The judge sustained injuries, and the media in Honduras reported his appearance in the protest. He was later investigated and suspended by the Supreme Court for participating in a political protest contrary to his role as a judge.
Tirza del Carmen Flores Lanza, was a magistrate of the Appellate Court in the city of San Pedro Sula and a founding member of the AJD. Flores Lanza instituted a writ of amparo in favor of President Zelaya and against the Chief of the Honduran Military for violating Articles 69, 81, 84, 99, and 102 of the Constitution and Articles 7(1),(2), 11(2), and 22(5) of the American Convention on Human Rights. She also instituted a penal action against members of the Honduran military and other individuals who participated in the coup. Flores Lanza was also dismissed from her position because the action of instituting a writ of amparo was found contrary to her role as a magistrate.
Luis Alonso Chévez de la Rocha was a judge for the Tribunal Against Domestic Violence of San Pedro Sula. After observing police brutality during an anti-coup demonstration, he directly questioned the police. Subsequently, he was arrested and while in custody, he was physically assaulted. After this incident, Chévez de la Rocha was investigated and also dismissed by the Supreme Court.
Ramón Enrique Barrios Maldonado was a judge of the First Division of the Sentencing Tribunal of San Pedro Sula and a founding member of the AJD. His name appeared on an academic publication called: “There was no Constitutional Succession.” The article, which was a summary of a lecture he had given in his capacity as a constitutional law professor, asserts that what took place was an unlawful military coup and not a constitutional succession. The Supreme Court also dismissed him as judge, citing that the conduct of Barrios Maldonado was inconsistent with his duties and that he threatened the dignity of the judicial administration. However, the Council of the Judicial Career revoked his dismissal and reinstated Barrios Maldonado.
Following an unsuccessful recourse before the Judicial Career Council of Honduras, the AJD and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) instituted a petition in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on July 6, 2010. The judges alleged that the disciplinary proceedings against them were a direct punishment for expressing their opposition against the coup and in contrary to the Supreme Court’s opinion. They alleged violation of their rights under Articles 8 (right to fair trial), 13 (freedom of expression), 15 (freedom of assembly), 16 (freedom of association), and 25 (right to judicial protection) of the Convention.
The Commission concluded that Honduras was responsible for the violation of above articles in relation to Articles 1(1) and 2 of the Convention. On March 17, 2014, the Commission then submitted the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights because of “the need to obtain justice for the [alleged] victims.”
The decision of the Inter-American Court was delivered by the President Judge Humberto Antonio Sierra Porto. Relevant here, the main issue before the Court was whether the Honduran government violated the judges’ rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association guaranteed respectively under Articles 13, 15, and 16 of the American Convention on Human Rights.
Judges argued that: (1) they were unlawfully deprived of their right to freedom of expression; (2) that the rights to freedom of expression and assembly could only be limited in order to sustain the dignity, impartiality, and independence of the judiciary; (3) that their opinions against the coup did not affect in any way the well being of the judiciary; (4) that as citizens and human rights advocates, they merely sought to defend the democratic institution of Honduras; and (5) that the disciplinary proceedings were made pursuant to regulations for the sole purpose of preventing them from questioning the role of the Supreme Court in the coup. [para. 158]
The Honduran government, on the other hand, contended that it did not violate their right to freedom of expression. They asserted that the exercise of the right to freedom of expression carries limitations. In this case, the government argued that the limitation was made in order to protect the impartiality and independence of the judiciary. Moreover, the government submitted that the dismissals were in accordance with the law and not for political reasons. [para. 159]
The Court first reiterated the importance of the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association in a democratic society. [para. 160] It emphasized that expression in favor of democracy should be protected at all times by the State. The Court stated that the right to freedom of expression has two dimensions: individual and social. [para. 166]. A the individual level, the right of a person to express his or her opinion cannot be arbitrarily diminished or hindered; and at the social dimension, free speech consists the collective right of receiving and sharing information or opinions.
Additionally, the Court explained that the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association are not absolute and can be limited. However, the limitations cannot be arbitrary, and have to be in accordance with the law, pursuant to a legitimate purpose, and that the limitations must comply with the requirements of suitability, necessity, and proportionality. [para. 168] The Court also stated that the American Convention guarantees these rights to all persons and thus, it cannot be limited to certain groups or to a particular profession. [para. 169] Relevant here, the Court was of the opinion that judges are equally entitled to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, but in a way that does not affect the impartiality and independence of the judiciary. [paras. 169-172] Moreover, it deemed that there are certain situations where a judge, as a common citizen, considers it his or her moral duty to express different opinions. [para. 173]
By applying the above standards, the Court found that the government violated the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly of López Lone and Chévez de la Rocha under Articles 13 and 15 in relation to Article 1(1) of the American Convention. Regarding Flores Lanza, the Court determined that the filing of a suit could be considered as an exercise of the right to freedom of expression. In this case, Flores Lanza instituted a writ of amparo and a penal action against the Honduran military personnel and others involved in the coup. For these reasons, the Court concluded that the government violated her right to freedom of expression. Regarding Barrios Maldonado, even though he was not dismissed of his duties as a judge, the Court concluded that the disciplinary proceedings adversely affected his right to freedom of expression. Finally, the Court concluded that Honduras also violated the right to freedom of association of López Lone, Chévez de la Rocha, and Flores Lanza as their dismissals deprived them of associating with the AJD.
As a form of reparation, the Court ordered the Honduran government to reinstate the judges into their respective positions or similar, and to pay compensatory damages.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision expands expression as declared that judges do enjoy the right to freedom of expression under the American Convention. More importantly, the decision constitutes a breakthrough in Honduras regarding the 2009 coup.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
The report was requested by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights
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