Wingrove v. The United Kingdom (19/1995/525/611) 25 November 1996: Refusal to grant distribution certificate in respect of video work considered blasphemous; Blasphemy by very nature has no precise legal definition - national authorities must be afforded degree of flexibility in assessing whether particular facts fall within definition -- Interference intended to protect against seriously offensive attacks on matters regarded as sacred by Christians
United Kingdom - refusal to grant distribution certificate in respect of video work considered blasphemous (section 4(1) of the Video Recordings Act 1984)
Article 10 of the Convention
Refusal by British Board of Film Classification to grant distribution certificate for applicant's video work: "interference" with applicant's right to freedom of expression.
A. Prescribed by law
Board acted in accordance with section 4(1) of Video Recordings Act 1984.
Blasphemy by very nature has no precise legal definition - national authorities must be afforded degree of flexibility in assessing whether particular facts fall within definition.
No general uncertainty or disagreement as to definition of blasphemy - Court satisfied that applicant with legal advice could reasonably foresee that scenes in film could fall within the scope of blasphemy - cannot be said that blasphemy law did not afford adequate protection against arbitrary interference - impugned restriction was "prescribed by law".
B. Legitimate aim
Aim of interference corresponds to the protection of rights of others and is fully consonant with aims of Article 9.
Whether or not real need for protection against exposure to video to be addressed when assessing "necessity" of interference.
Not for European Court to rule in abstracto as to compatibility of domestic law with Convention - fact that law of blasphemy does not treat all religions on equal footing does not detract from legitimacy of aim pursued in present context - certificate refusal had a legitimate aim.
C. Necessary in a democratic society
Interference intended to protect against seriously offensive attacks on matters regarded as sacred by Christians - there is as yet not sufficient common ground in legal and social orders of Member States of the Council of Europe to conclude that blasphemy legislation is, in itself, unnecessary in a democratic society.
Under Article 10 § 2 little scope for restrictions on political speech or on debate of questions of public interest - wider margin of appreciation generally available in relation to matters liable to offend intimate personal convictions in the sphere of morals or religion - as with morals, no uniform European conception of the requirements of protection against attacks on religious convictions - national authorities better placed than international judge to define these requirements and to rule on "necessity" of "restriction".
Final European supervision all the more necessary given breadth and open-endedness of notion of blasphemy and the risks of arbitrary or excessive interferences this entails - prior restraint in present case calls for special scrutiny.
Blasphemy law does not prohibit expression of views hostile to Christian religion or of any opinion offensive to Christians - law seeks to control manner in which views are advocated - extent of insult to religious feelings must be significant.
High degree of profanation required: safeguard against arbitrariness.
Video work portrays crucified Christ in acts of overtly sexual nature - national authorities considered manner in which such imagery was treated placed focus less on erotic feelings of the character than on those of the audience and that no attempt was made to explore meaning of imagery beyond engaging viewer in "voyeuristic erotic experience" - thus reasons given to justify interference can be considered relevant and sufficient - interference cannot be said to be arbitrary or excessive.
Videos once on the market easily escape control - not unreasonable for national authorities to consider that video could have reached people to whom it would have caused offence - national authorities better placed than European Court to make assessment as to video's likely impact.
Although interference amounted to complete ban this was understandable consequence of authorities' opinion that distribution of video would infringe the criminal law and of applicant's refusal to amend it or cut out blasphemous scenes - national authorities' margin of appreciation not overstepped.
Conclusion: no violation (seven votes to two).
I. ALLEGED VIOLATION OF ARTICLE 10 OF THE CONVENTION
35. The applicant alleged a violation of his right to freedom of expression, as guaranteed by Article 10 of the Convention, which, in so far as relevant, provides:
"1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. ...
2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary."
36. The refusal by the British Board of Film Classification to grant a certificate for the applicant's video work Visions of Ecstasy, seen in conjunction with the statutory provisions making it a criminal offence to distribute a video work without this certificate (see paragraph 23 above), amounted to an interference by a public authority with the applicant's right to impart ideas. This was common ground between the participants in the proceedings.
To determine whether such an interference entails a violation of the Convention, the Court must examine whether or not it was justified under Article 10 § 2 by reason of being a restriction "prescribed by law", which pursued an aim that was legitimate under that provision and was "necessary in a democratic society".
A. Whether the interference was "prescribed by law"
37. The applicant considered that the law of blasphemy was so uncertain that it was inordinately difficult to establish in advance whether in the eyes of a jury a particular publication would constitute an offence. Moreover, it was practically impossible to know what predictions an administrative body - the British Board of Film Classification - would make as to the outcome of a hypothetical prosecution. In these circumstances, the applicant could not reasonably be expected to foresee the result of the Board's speculations. The requirement of foreseeability which flows from the expression "prescribed by law" was therefore not fulfilled.
38. The Government contested this claim: it was a feature common to most laws and legal systems that tribunals may reach different conclusions even when applying the same law to the same facts. This did not necessarily make these laws inaccessible or unforeseeable. Given the infinite variety of ways of publishing "contemptuous, reviling, scurrilous, or ludicrous matter relating to God, Jesus Christ, or the Bible" (see paragraph 27 above), it would not be appropriate for the law to seek to define in detail which images would or would not be potentially blasphemous.
39. The Commission, noting that considerable legal advice was available to the applicant, was of the view that he could reasonably have foreseen the restrictions to which his video work was liable.
40. The Court reiterates that, according to its case-law, the relevant national "law", which includes both statute and common law (see, inter alia, the Sunday Times v. the United Kingdom (no. 1) judgment of 26 April 1979, Series A no. 30, p. 30, § 47), must be formulated with sufficient precision to enable those concerned - if need be, with appropriate legal advice - to foresee, to a degree that is reasonable in the circumstances, the consequences which a given action may entail. A law that confers a discretion is not in itself inconsistent with this requirement, provided that the scope of the discretion and the manner of its exercise are indicated with sufficient clarity, having regard to the legitimate aim in question, to give the individual adequate protection against arbitrary interference (see, for instance, the Tolstoy Miloslavsky v. the United Kingdom judgment of 13 July 1995, Series A no. 316-B, pp. 71-72, § 37, and the Goodwin v. the United Kingdom judgment of 27 March 1996, Reports 1996-..., p. ..., § 31).
41. It is observed that, in refusing a certificate for distribution of the applicant's video on the basis that it infringed a provision of the criminal law of blasphemy, the British Board of Film Classification acted within its powers under section 4(1) of the 1984 Act (see paragraph 24 above).
42. The Court recognises that the offence of blasphemy cannot by its very nature lend itself to precise legal definition. National authorities must therefore be afforded a degree of flexibility in assessing whether the facts of a particular case fall within the accepted definition of the offence (see, mutatis mutandis, the Tolstoy Miloslavsky judgment, cited above at paragraph 40, p. 73, § 41).
43. There appears to be no general uncertainty or disagreement between those appearing before the Court as to the definition in English law of the offence of blasphemy, as formulated by the House of Lords in the case of Whitehouse v. Gay News Ltd and Lemon (see paragraph 27 above). Having seen for itself the content of the video work, the Court is satisfied that the applicant could reasonably have foreseen with appropriate legal advice that the film, particularly those scenes involving the crucified figure of Christ, could fall within the scope of the offence of blasphemy.
The above conclusion is borne out by the applicant's decision not to initiate proceedings for judicial review on the basis of counsel's advice that the panel's formulation of the law of blasphemy represented an accurate statement of the law (see, mutatis mutandis, the Open Door and Dublin Well Woman v. Ireland judgment of 29 October 1992, Series A no. 246, p. 27, § 60).
44. Against the foregoing background it cannot be said that the law in question did not afford the applicant adequate protection against arbitrary interference. The Court therefore concludes that the impugned restriction was "prescribed by law".
B. Whether the interference pursued a legitimate aim
45. The applicant contested the Government's assertion that his video work was refused a certificate for distribution in order to "protect the right of citizens not to be offended in their religious feelings". In his submission, the expression "rights of others" in the present context only refers to an actual, positive right not to be offended. It does not include a hypothetical right held by some Christians to avoid disturbance at the prospect of other people's viewing the video work without being shocked.
In any event - the applicant further submitted - the restriction on the film's distribution could not pursue a legitimate aim since it was based on a discriminatory law, limited to the protection of Christians, and specifically, those of the Anglican faith.
46. The Government referred to the case of Otto-Preminger-Institut v. Austria (judgment of 20 September 1994, Series A no. 295, pp. 17-18, §§ 47-48) where the Court had accepted that the respect for the religious feelings of believers can move a State legitimately to restrict the publication of provocative portrayals of objects of religious veneration.
47. The Commission considered that the English law of blasphemy is intended to suppress behaviour directed against objects of religious veneration that is likely to cause justified indignation amongst believing Christians. It follows that the application of this law in the present case was intended to protect the right of citizens not to be insulted in their religious feelings.
48. The Court notes at the outset that, as stated by the Board, the aim of the interference was to protect against the treatment of a religious subject in such a manner "as to be calculated (that is, bound, not intended) to outrage those who have an understanding of, sympathy towards and support for the Christian story and ethic, because of the contemptuous, reviling, insulting, scurrilous or ludicrous tone, style and spirit in which the subject is presented" (see paragraph 15 above).
This is an aim which undoubtedly corresponds to that of the protection of "the rights of others" within the meaning of paragraph 2 of Article 10. It is also fully consonant with the aim of the protections afforded by Article 9 to religious freedom.
49. Whether or not there was a real need for protection against exposure to the film in question is a matter which must be addressed below when assessing the "necessity" of the interference.
50. It is true that the English law of blasphemy only extends to the Christian faith. Indeed the anomaly of this state of affairs in a multidenominational society was recognised by the Divisional Court in R. v. Chief Magistrate, ex parte Choudhury,  1 All England Law Reports 206, p. 317. However, it is not for the European Court to rule in abstracto as to the compatibility of domestic law with the Convention.
The uncontested fact that the law of blasphemy does not treat on an equal footing the different religions practised in the United Kingdom does not detract from the legitimacy of the aim pursued in the present context.
51. The refusal to grant a certificate for the distribution of Visions of Ecstasy consequently had a legitimate aim under Article 10 § 2.
C. Whether the interference was "necessary in a democratic society"
52. The Court recalls that freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society. As paragraph 2 of Article 10 expressly recognises, however, the exercise of that freedom carries with it duties and responsibilities. Amongst them, in the context of religious beliefs, may legitimately be included a duty to avoid as far as possible an expression that is, in regard to objects of veneration, gratuitously offensive to others and profanatory (see the Otto-Preminger-Institut judgment, cited above at paragraph 46, pp. 18-19, §§ 47 and 49).
53. No restriction on freedom of expression, whether in the context of religious beliefs or in any other, can be compatible with Article 10 unless it satisfies, inter alia, the test of necessity as required by the second paragraph of that Article. In examining whether restrictions to the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Convention can be considered "necessary in a democratic society" the Court has, however, consistently held that the Contracting States enjoy a certain but not unlimited margin of appreciation. It is, in any event, for the European Court to give a final ruling on the restriction's compatibility with the Convention and it will do so by assessing in the circumstances of a particular case, inter alia, whether the interference corresponded to a "pressing social need" and whether it was "proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued" (see, mutatis mutandis, among many other authorities, the Goodwin judgment, mentioned above at paragraph 40, p. ..., § 40).
54. According to the applicant, there was no "pressing social need" to ban a video work on the uncertain assumption that it would breach the law of blasphemy; indeed, the overriding social need was to allow it to be distributed. Furthermore, since adequate protection was already provided by a panoply of laws - concerning, inter alia, obscenity, public order and disturbances to places of religious worship - blasphemy laws, which are incompatible with the European idea of freedom of expression, were also superfluous in practice. In any event, the complete prohibition of a video work that contained no obscenity, no pornography and no element of vilification of Christ was disproportionate to the aim pursued.
55. For the Commission, the fact that Visions of Ecstasy was a short video work and not a feature film meant that its distribution would have been more limited and less likely to attract publicity. The Commission came to the same conclusion as the applicant.
56. The Government contended that the applicant's video work was clearly a provocative and indecent portrayal of an object of religious veneration, that its distribution would have been sufficiently public and widespread to cause offence and that it amounted to an attack on the religious beliefs of Christians which was insulting and offensive. In those circumstances, in refusing to grant a classification certificate for the applicant's video work, the national authorities only acted within their margin of appreciation.
57. The Court observes that the refusal to grant Visions of Ecstasy a distribution certificate was intended to protect "the rights of others", and more specifically to provide protection against seriously offensive attacks on matters regarded as sacred by Christians.
As the observations filed by the intervenors show, blasphemy legislation is still in force in various European countries. It is true that the application of these laws has become increasingly rare and that several States have recently repealed them altogether. In the United Kingdom only two prosecutions concerning blasphemy have been brought in the last seventy years (see paragraph 27 above). Strong arguments have been advanced in favour of the abolition of blasphemy laws, for example, that such laws may discriminate against different faiths or denominations - as put forward by the applicant - or that legal mechanisms are inadequate to deal with matters of faith or individual belief - as recognised by the Minister of State for the Home Department in his letter of 4 July 1989 (see paragraph 29 above). However, the fact remains that there is as yet not sufficient common ground in the legal and social orders of the Member States of the Council of Europe to conclude that a system whereby a State can impose restrictions on the propagation of material on the basis that it is blasphemous is, in itself, unnecessary in a democratic society and thus incompatible with the Convention (see, mutatis mutandis, the Otto-Preminger-Institut, cited above at paragraph 46, p. 19, § 49).
58. Whereas there is little scope under Article 10 § 2 of the Convention for restrictions on political speech or on debate of questions of public interest (see, mutatis mutandis, among many other authorities, the Lingens v. Austria judgment of 8 July 1986, Series A no. 103, p. 26, § 42; the Castells v. Spain judgment of 23 April 1992, Series A no. 236, p. 23, § 43, and the Thorgeir Thorgeirson v. Iceland judgment of 25 June 1992, Series A no. 239, p. 27, § 63), a wider margin of appreciation is generally available to the Contracting States when regulating freedom of expression in relation to matters liable to offend intimate personal convictions within the sphere of morals or, especially, religion. Moreover, as in the field of morals, and perhaps to an even greater degree, there is no uniform European conception of the requirements of "the protection of the rights of others" in relation to attacks on their religious convictions. What is likely to cause substantial offence to persons of a particular religious persuasion will vary significantly from time to time and from place to place, especially in an era characterised by an ever growing array of faiths and denominations. By reason of their direct and continuous contact with the vital forces of their countries, State authorities are in principle in a better position than the international judge to give an opinion on the exact content of these requirements with regard to the rights of others as well as on the "necessity" of a "restriction" intended to protect from such material those whose deepest feelings and convictions would be seriously offended (see, mutatis mutandis, the Müller and Others v. Switzerland judgment of 24 May 1988, Series A no. 133, p. 22, § 35).
This does not of course exclude final European supervision. Such supervision is all the more necessary given the breadth and open-endedness of the notion of blasphemy and the risks of arbitrary or excessive interferences with freedom of expression under the guise of action taken against allegedly blasphemous material. In this regard the scope of the offence of blasphemy and the safeguards inherent in the legislation are especially important. Moreover the fact that the present case involves prior restraint calls for special scrutiny by the Court (see, mutatis mutandis, the Observer and Guardian v. the United Kingdom judgment of 26 November 1991, Series A no. 216, p. 30, § 60).
59. The Court's task in this case is to determine whether the reasons relied on by the national authorities to justify the measures interfering with the applicant's freedom of expression are relevant and sufficient for the purposes of Article 10 § 2 of the Convention.
60. As regards the content of the law itself, the Court observes that the English law of blasphemy does not prohibit the expression, in any form, of views hostile to the Christian religion. Nor can it be said that opinions which are offensive to Christians necessarily fall within its ambit. As the English courts have indicated (see paragraph 27 above), it is the manner in which views are advocated rather than the views themselves which the law seeks to control. The extent of insult to religious feelings must be significant, as is clear from the use by the courts of the adjectives "contemptuous", "reviling", "scurrilous", "ludicrous" to depict material of a sufficient degree of offensiveness.
The high degree of profanation that must be attained constitutes, in itself, a safeguard against arbitrariness. It is against this background that the asserted justification under Article 10 § 2 in the decisions of the national authorities must be considered.
61. Visions of Ecstasy portrays, inter alia, a female character astride the recumbent body of the crucified Christ engaged in an act of an overtly sexual nature (see paragraph 9 above). The national authorities, using powers that are not themselves incompatible with the Convention (see paragraph 57 above), considered that the manner in which such imagery was treated placed the focus of the work "less on the erotic feelings of the character than on those of the audience, which is the primary function of pornography" (see paragraph 15 above). They further held that since no attempt was made in the film to explore the meaning of the imagery beyond engaging the viewer in a "voyeuristic erotic experience", the public distribution of such a video could outrage and insult the feelings of believing Christians and constitute the criminal offence of blasphemy. This view was reached by both the Board of Film Classification and the Video Appeals Committee following a careful consideration of the arguments in defence of his work presented by the applicant in the course of two sets of proceedings. Moreover, it was open to the applicant to challenge the decision of the Appeals Committee in proceedings for judicial review (see paragraph 30 above).
Bearing in mind the safeguard of the high threshold of profanation embodied in the definition of the offence of blasphemy under English law as well as the State's margin of appreciation in this area (see paragraph 58 above), the reasons given to justify the measures taken can be considered as both relevant and sufficient for the purposes of Article 10 § 2. Furthermore, having viewed the film for itself, the Court is satisfied that the decisions by the national authorities cannot be said to be arbitrary or excessive.
62. It was submitted by both the applicant and the Delegate of the Commission that a short experimental video work would reach a smaller audience than a major feature film, such as the one at issue in the Otto-Preminger-Institut case (cited above at paragraph 46). The risk that any Christian would unwittingly view the video was therefore substantially reduced and so was the need to impose restrictions on its distribution. Furthermore, this risk could have been reduced further by restricting the distribution of the film to licensed sex shops (see paragraph 23 above). Since the film would have been dispensed in video boxes which would have included a description of its content, only consenting adults would ever have been confronted with it.
63. The Court notes, however, that it is in the nature of video works that once they become available on the market they can, in practice, be copied, lent, rented, sold and viewed in different homes, thereby easily escaping any form of control by the authorities.
In these circumstances, it was not unreasonable for the national authorities, bearing in mind the development of the video industry in the United Kingdom (see paragraph 22 above), to consider that the film could have reached a public to whom it would have caused offence. The use of a box including a warning as to the film's content (see paragraph 62 above) would have had only limited efficiency given the varied forms of transmission of video works mentioned above. In any event, here too the national authorities are in a better position than the European Court to make an assessment as to the likely impact of such a video, taking into account the difficulties in protecting the public.
64. It is true that the measures taken by the authorities amounted to a complete ban on the film's distribution. However, this was an understandable consequence of the opinion of the competent authorities that the distribution of the video would infringe the criminal law and of the refusal of the applicant to amend or cut out the objectionable sequences (see paragraph 13 above). Having reached the conclusion that they did as to the blasphemous content of the film it cannot be said that the authorities overstepped their margin of appreciation.
65. Against the foregoing background the national authorities were entitled to consider that the impugned measure was justified as being necessary in a democratic society within the meaning of paragraph 2 of Article 10. There has therefore been no violation of Article 10 of the Convention.
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