Content Regulation / Censorship, National Security
The Sunday Times v. United Kingdom (No. 2)
Closed Expands Expression
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Cassandra Vera tweeted several jokes concerning the assassination by ETA of a high-ranking official of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, in 1973. She was prosecuted and found guilty of glorifying terrorism and humiliating victims of terrorism under Article 578 of the Spanish Penal Code. On appeal, the Supreme Court acquitted her on the grounds that the tweets were satirical, that the assassination occurred a long time ago and that her posts could no longer pose a threat to national security.
Cassandra Vera, then an 18 year-old student, posted several jokes on her Twitter account regarding the 1973 bomb attack by the Basque armed group ETA (“Euskadi Ta Askatasuna”, or Basque Homeland and Liberty) on Luis Carrero Blanco, Prime Minister during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. Two others were also killed, and the bomb was so strong that Carrero Blanco’s car flew over the rood of the church where he had attended a service.
Vera’s tweets repeated a number of old jokes about the attack, mostly centering on the nature of the bomb attack. They included, “Kissinger gave Carrero Blanco a piece of the moon as a gift, ETA paid his ticket to it”; “ETA promoted a policy against official cars, combined with a space program”; and “Elections on the anniversary of Carrero Blanco’s space flight. Interesting.”
Vera was prosecuted under Article 578 of Spain’s Penal Code, which criminalizes the glorification of terrorism and humiliating victims of terrorism. The “Audiencia Nacional”, the highest national criminal court which deals with serious crimes, found her guilty holding that the tweets injured the victims’ dignity and jeopardized the solidarity of the community. According to the court, Vera’s attitude was disrespectful and humiliating, and ignored that the victims of terrorism deserve respect and consideration. The Audiencia Nacional imposed a one year prison sentence and ordered that the tweets be deleted.
Vera appealed the judgment of the Audiencia Nacional to the Supreme Court, arguing that the principle of presumption of innocence had been violated and that the tweets were humorous and satirical.
The Supreme Court considered, first, that the criminal law must only be used in response to the most serious or harmful behavior. In the context of speech, it considered that there are many expressions or statements that might offend groups in society, but the mere fact that statements cause offense does not justify criminalizing them. As such, there are circumstances when even if speech is not protected under the right to freedom of expression, it cannot be prosecuted because it falls outside the scope of criminal law.
The court went on to examine whether the tweets fell within the scope of Article 578 of the Penal Code. The court recalled that the tweets referred in a satirical manner to the assassination of Prime Minister Luis Carrero Blanco. The court noted that Vera’s tweets repeated ‘jokes’ about the ETA bomb attack that had been in circulation for a long time, including on social media. The court noted furthermore that jokes about a terrorist attack that took place 44 years ago do not have the same impact as jokes about a recent event. The lapse of time was a decisive factor: the court stated that “we are no longer facing especially perverse actions that have as a specific objective the humiliation or discredit of the victims” with the intention of prolonging their suffering. [p. 8] Thus, the court concluded that the tweets were neither offensive nor humiliating.
The court considered the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, under which restricting the right to freedom of expression is justifiable if statements glorifying terrorism pose a real threat against national security, territorial integrity or public safety. In order to determine whether such a threat exists, the particular circumstances of each case need to be examined, including the author and the recipient of the message, and the context in which the messages were sent. Taking into account all of these, the Supreme Court found that Vera did not incite the commission of violent acts or posed a real threat to the society. Accordingly, the judgment of the criminal court was overturned and Vera was acquitted.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision expands the right to freedom of expression because it decriminalizes satirical statements on the Internet. Considering that the jokes tweeted by Vera satirized facts that occurred 44 years ago, the court held that they could not have the same impact as jokes about more recent cases. The court made it clear that this falls outside the scope of criminal law.
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 Supreme Court is Spain’s highest court and its decisions have an influential and persuasive effect.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.