Content Regulation / Censorship, Religious Expression
Otto-Preminger-Institut v. Austria
Closed Contracts Expression
Global Freedom of Expression is an academic initiative and therefore, we encourage you to share and republish excerpts of our content so long as they are not used for commercial purposes and you respect the following policy:
Attribution, copyright, and license information for media used by Global Freedom of Expression is available on our Credits page.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) unanimously ruled that a French law which prohibited the wearing of clothing that covered the face while in public spaces was not a violation of the protected rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The case was brought by a French citizen and devout Muslim who sued the French government for passing the law in question. The ECtHR found no violations of Articles 8, 9, 10, and 14 of the ECHR. The Court found that the law had the legitimate aim of ensuring the respect for the minimum requirements of life in society, namely the French principle of “living together” and recognized that countries have a wide margin of appreciation when regulating such matters.
France approved a bill that banned the wearing of clothing that covered one’s face in public places. Even though the law employed broad, neutral language to forbid any type of clothing that concealed the face, the media often identified Muslim women who wore the niqab or the burqa as its primary target. The penalty for breaking the law was a fine of up to €150 and/or compulsory citizenship classes.
A French citizen, who was a devout Muslim and wore a burqa and niqab regularly, brought this case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). She wished to wear her niqab at her choosing, based on her spiritual feeling at the time, but she did not claim she should be permitted to keep it on at banks, during security screenings, or during other instances when identity is important or at issue. She asserted that the ban was discriminatory under Article 14 of the ECHR, and that it infringed upon the right to respect for private life, which is protected under ECHR Article 8. She also argued that the ban violated the freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs, protected ECHR Article 9, and that it violated the right to freedom of expression under ECHR Article 10.
The ECtHR unanimously ruled that the French law did not violate the ECHR. The French government maintained that the ban could be considered a limitation to the freedom of expression of religious beliefs, but that this was, in accordance with Article 9 (2), “necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” The ECtHR recognized that the law had the legitimate aim of ensuring the respect for the minimum requirements of life in society, namely the French principle of “living together.” The ECtHR further noted that countries have a wide margin of appreciation when regulating social matters.
The ECtHR examined studies on the law’s impact and considered organizations’ view of the law, including the views of those organizations that submitted third party interventions in the case. The organization Article 19 claimed that restrictions on the freedom of expression “cannot be justified by speculation or assumptions about their necessity to serve individual or public interests” and that the restrictions “must be supported by robust evidence.” According to the research presented by another third party intervener, the Human Rights Centre at Ghent University, there is no proof that a similar ban introduced in Belgium is serving its stated purposes, among which increasing public safety.
Judges Nussberger and Jäderblom submitted a dissenting opinion. According to them, the principle of “living together” is not clearly linked to the rights protected by the ECHR and thus cannot be considered a legitimate aim. Moreover, they argued that a blanket ban is a disproportionate measure and unnecessary in democratic societies. Judgments of the Grand Chamber are final and appeal is not permitted.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
So far, the full-face veil has been forbidden in two out of 47 Member States of the Council of Europe (COE): Belgium and France. Leading human rights organizations, as well as the Parliamentary Assembly of the COE and the Commissioner for Human Rights of the COE, have advised against establishing a general ban.
This ruling by the Grand Chamber is the first in which the ECtHR has addressed the compatibility of a ban on wearing the full-face veil in public places with the ECHR. In deciding that the ban does not violate the ECHR, the ECtHR has set an important precedent for both European and international jurisprudence.
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 ECtHR are binding on the parties involved.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.