Governments attempting to use the tired “public morality” excuse to curb LGBT-positive speech: you’re on notice. On November 19th the UN Human Rights Committee issued a landmark ruling in Fedotova v. Russia.
The plaintiff is a lesbian who was arrested and fined 1500 rubles in 2009 for displaying signs that read “Homosexuality is normal” and “I am proud of my homosexuality” in front of a secondary school in Ryazan, a Russian city 120 miles southeast of Moscow. Two appellate courts, including the country’s Constitutional Court, upheld the conviction.
The Committee acknowledged Russia’s right to restrict freedom of expression for moral purposes where such limits meet strictly-construed criteria of necessity and proportionality. However, it applied its General Comment 34 from 2011 (regarding Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, guaranteeing freedoms of opinion and expression), which states:
[T]he concept of morals derives from many social, philosophical and religious traditions; consequently, limitations […] for the purpose of protecting morals must be based on principles not deriving exclusively from a single tradition. Any such limitations must be understood in the light of universality of human rights and the principle of non-discrimination.
Importantly, Fedotova reverses the Committee’s 1982 ruling in Hertzberg v. Finland; that decision, which upheld the Scandinavian country’s censorship of journalistic coverage of the gay community, has offered legal cover to many countries’ restrictions on LGBT-positive speech for two decades. But no more.
The Committee ordered the Russian government to pay Ms. Fedotova’s legal fees, refund the 1500-ruble fine, correct the offending law, and “widely disseminate” the text of the ruling in Russian; a status report detailing compliance with the order is due to the Committee within 180 days of the judgment.