Artistic Expression, Content Regulation / Censorship, Indecency / Obscenity, Religious Freedom
Wingrove v. United Kingdom
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The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) found that the prohibition by the Chilean State to show the film The Last Temptation of Christ constituted a violation of the right to freedom of thought and expression. The prohibition was based on Article 19, Number 12 of the Chilean Constitution, which established the possibility of prior censorship. According to the IACtHR, this measure conflicted with Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR) and the duty of States to adapt their domestic legal systems to guarantee the rights and freedoms recognized in the ACHR.
The Chilean Constitution, in its Article 19, Number 12, provided a “system of censorship for the exhibition and advertising of cinematographic production” [p. 21].
In November 1988 the Film Rating Council, an entity with the power to advise on film showcasing and rating, opposed the showing of The Last Temptation of Christ. This decision was then confirmed by an appellate court in March 1989.
A new permission to showcase the film was requested, and the Film Rating Council reviewed its prior decision and restricted the film for people over 18 years old. A group of people representing Jesus Christ, the Church and themselves reacted to this rating by presenting a complaint that was granted by the Appellate Court of Santiago in January 1997 and confirmed by the Supreme Court of Chile in June of that same year, resulting in the prohibition to showcase the film.
In November 1999 the House of Representatives had passed a bill to amend the Constitution tending to eliminate prior censorship to film exhibition and publicity. This amendment, however, was still under debate by the time the IACtHR decided on this case.
The Asociación de Abogados por las Libertades Públicas (Association of Lawyers for Public Liberties) submitted the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The IACHR concluded that Chile had violated the ACHR and presented the case before the IACtHR.
The IACtHR had to decide whether the norm that enshrined a “’system of censorship for the exhibition and advertising of cinematographic production’” [p. 21] and the decision to prohibit the showing of a film based on said rule was a violation of the right to freedom of expression.
After studying the case, the IACtHR ruled that the decision to prevent the screening of the film constituted an act of prior censorship that violated the right to freedom of thought and expression enshrined in Article 13 of the American ACHR.
To support its decision, the Court began by explaining the structural importance of the freedom of expression in a democratic society and cited important jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights. Likewise, the IACtHR explained that the right to freedom of expression comprises two dimensions of equal importance and that they must be guaranteed simultaneously: the individual dimension that protects the right to speak, write and to use any media to share ideas and information; and the social dimension that recognizes freedom of expression as a means for exchanging ideas and the right to receive opinions and news from others. The Court made clear that expressing and sharing thoughts and information are indivisible, in a way that any restriction to disseminate information entails a corresponding restriction to free speech [para. 147].
Taking into consideration the two dimensions of the right of freedom of expression, the Court indicated that the decision to prevent the projection of a film compromised not only the right of those who wanted to show it but the rights of the general public to decide whether or not they wanted to see it.
The Court stated that Article 13.4 of the ACHR establishes a single exception to prior censorship, referring to public performances with the sole purpose of protecting the morals of children and adolescents, and explained that any other measure of prior censorship implied the impairment of the right to freedom of expression.
The Court also concluded that Chile violated the Convention when it did not adapt its legal system to the rights recognized by the treaty, instead, keeping in effect Article 19, Number 12 of the Constitution and Executive Order 679 [p. 88]. Consequently, the Court ordered Chile to adapt its legislation in reasonable time to eliminate prior censorship and allow the showcasing of the film [p. 39].
Furthermore, the Court sustained that freedom of conscience and religion, recognized by Article 12 of the Convention, allows people to keep, change, exercise and share their religion and beliefs. However, it also stated that in this case there was no proof of a violation to that right. The Court explained that “the prohibition of the exhibition of the film The Last Temptation of Christ did not deprive or undermine any person of their right to conserve, change, profess or disclose, with absolute freedom, their religion or their beliefs” [p.32].
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision adopted by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights expanded freedom of expression by deciding against cinematographic censorship, eliminating barriers to the exchange of ideas and access to information. More broadly, the Court ordered the modification of Chile’s internal legal system and ratified the express prohibition of prior censorship in force in the inter-American legal system.
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 decisions of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights are binding on the respective State and establish standards that must be taken into account by the judicial bodies of all State Parties to the American Convention on Human Rights in applicable cases.
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