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European Court of Human Rights undermines free speech protections in Down syndrome ruling

  • French authorities ruled that a Down syndrome video was “disturbing” to some women’s conscience and not “a message of general interest,” resulting in subsequent refusal to broadcast.
  • Fondation Jérôme Lejeune, represented by ADF International, was not granted justice for Down syndrome voices by the European Court of Human Rights.

Strasbourg, France (1 September 2022) – The European Court of Human Rights has found inadmissible an application by Fondation Jérôme Lejeune claiming that the French Broadcasting Council’s designation of a Down syndrome video as not “a message of general interest” constituted unjust censorship. The Court’s failure to condemn the French authority’s treatment of Down syndrome voices stands in stark contrast to recent national decisions in Europe upholding freedom of expression.

“Freedom of expression is the foundation of every free and democratic society, enshrined in international human rights law. We believe that every voice deserves a chance to be heard, which is why we represented Fondation Jérôme Lejeune at the European Court of Human Rights. This is a failure of justice not just for people with Down syndrome and disability rights advocates, but for all concerned with free expression in Europe,” said Jean-Paul Van De Walle, serving as legal counsel, Europe, for ADF International.

The case concerns “Dear Future Mom,” a short video produced by Down syndrome advocates in conjunction with Fondation Jérôme Lejeune, the leading organisation in France for research and care for people with Down syndrome. The video begins by quoting an email from a pregnant mother, seeking advice: “I’m expecting a baby. I’ve discovered he has Down syndrome. I’m scared: what kind of life will my child have?” It follows with messages from 15 adults and children with Down syndrome in which they reassure the worried mother that life with Down syndrome can be fulfilling and enriching.

The video was shared across various French media platforms. In 2014, the French broadcasting authority issued a warning claiming the video was “disturbing to the conscience of women who, in accordance with the law, had made different personal life choices”. A letter was sent to the three television channels that had aired the video instructing them to stop broadcasting the video in slots reserved for “messages of general interest,” resulting in its effective censorship.

The Foundation approached the channels to air the video again, with no positive response. Despite this, the video garnered multiple awards from the Cannes International Festival of Creativity and the Art Directors Club of Europe and was widely shared around the world. It has been viewed over 8.4 million times on YouTube alone.

Challenge to French censorship of persons with disabilities

Fondation Jérôme Lejeune has, for years, set the standard in research and care for people with Down syndrome. It challenged the French authority’s letter and subsequent effective censorship of the video. A French tribunal found no error of law in the authority’s opinion, and the video remained off air. The Foundation then brought the challenge to the European Court of Human Rights, represented by ADF International.

ECHR denies Fondation Jérôme Lejeune victim status under the Convention

In deeming it inadmissible, the Court did not find a violation of the Foundation’s right to freedom of expression. This ruling came in spite of the fact that the French government itself had recognized, both in the domestic proceedings as well as before the Court, that the broadcasting authority’s letter had “significantly influenced the behavior of the television channels, inviting them to avoid future broadcasting of the concerned message”.

More specifically, the Court ruled that Fondation Jérôme Lejeune cannot claim to be a “victim,” under the terms of the European Convention of Human Rights, because the Down syndrome video had been broadcast several times prior to the French authority’s intervention. It also found no sufficient evidence of a direct link between on the one hand the letter sent by the broadcasting authority, and on the other, the television channel’s subsequent refusal to broadcast the film.

“The Court’s decision to declare this case inadmissible is regrettable as it sends the signal that governments can exert pressure to silence the voices of persons with Down syndrome in the public sphere. This contributes to a culture of discrimination, which we must stand against if we truly are to uphold the dignity of persons with disabilities. Children and adults with Down syndrome deserve to be heard and seen in society,” said Van De Walle.

Recent victories for free expression in Europe

The inadmissibility ruling stands in contrast to several national decisions across Europe that strongly reaffirm the right to freedom of expression. In June this year, a Slovenian court found a state-owned bus company could not censor pro-life ads. In the UK, a grandmother successfully challenged a penalty given to her while out walking and praying silently near an abortion facility. On 25 August, a German court ruled that a municipality could not ban peaceful and silent prayer gatherings in the vicinity of an abortion counseling facility.

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