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European Court: Suspended Prison Sentence For Protest In Catholic Church Violated Rights Of Abortion Rights Activist


In Bourton v. France, (ECHR, Oct. 13, 2022) (full text of decision in French), the European Court of Human Rights in a Chamber Judgment held that a French court’s imposition of a suspended one-month prison sentence on a 39-year feminist activist charged with “sexual exposure” violated her rights of freedom of expression under the European Convention on Human Rights. The French court had also ordered defendant to pay damages and costs totaling 3500 Euros.  According to the English language press release from the European Court:

On 20 December 2013 [Eloise Bouton] staged a protest in the church of La Madeleine in Paris, but not during mass, by standing in front of the high altar while exposing her breasts, revealing slogans daubed across her body, and pretending to carry out an abortion using raw beef liver as a prop. Her performance was brief and she left the church when so requested by the choirmaster. The protest received media coverage, about ten journalists having been present….

The purpose of the applicant’s mise en scène had been to convey, in a symbolic place of worship, a message relating to a public and societal debate on the positioning of the Catholic Church on a woman’s right to free disposal of her body, including the right to have an abortion.

In these circumstances, the [European] Court [of Human Rights] took the view that the applicant’s freedom of expression should have been afforded a sufficient level of protection since the content of her message related to a matter of public interest….

The Court reiterated that the imposition of a prison sentence for an offence in the area of political speech would be compatible with freedom of expression as guaranteed by Article 10 of the Convention only in exceptional circumstances, as, for example, in the case of hate speech or incitement to violence….

The Court found that the grounds given by the domestic courts had not been sufficient for it to consider that they had weighed up the interests at stake in an appropriate manner and in accordance with the criteria established in its case-law….


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