Information Note on the Court’s case-law 215
Meslot v. France – 50538/12
Decision 9.1.2018 [Section V]
Freedom of expression
Conviction for personal attack on judge in electoral campaign speech: inadmissible
Facts – The applicant is a politician who was a Member of Parliament several times between 2002 and 2017. In 2006 he was formally charged by investigating judge D., who had been investigating a complaint of electoral fraud. In June 2007, at a campaign rally, he delivered a virulent speech which included the following expressions and passages: “I have no respect for judge D.”, who had “turned into a political commissar”, “acted ultra vires” and “sullied the judiciary”, and was a person who “could not be trusted”. In purported contrast, the speech went on to denounce the recent release (imputed to the same judge) of two robbers by “leftie judges” who “would rather attack right-wing MPs than criminals”. Further to a complaint lodged by judge D., the applicant was fined EUR 1,000 for contempt of court.
Law – Article 10: The Court examined the proportionality of the interference in the light of its well-established criteria.
The applicant had made the impugned comments in his capacity as an MP at a political rally during the election period, in a speech to a crowd of two hundred people. Therefore, his words had not been directly addressed to judge D., and had in fact had some bearing on the subject of security since the applicant had mentioned a specific case in order to denounce the judiciary’s lax attitude to persons suspected of having committed offences. His comments had also concerned the legal case in which he had been personally involved and which had attracted extensive media coverage.
As regards the nature of the impugned comments, the Court saw no cogent reason to question the duly reasoned decision of the domestic courts to the effect that the content of the comments had reflected a desire to inveigh personally against the judge: the applicant had not criticised the manner in which judge D. had discharged his duties as an investigating judge in the electoral fraud case, but had presented him and the judiciary as being guided by purely political and ideological considerations; all the comments had come down to his personal dispute with the investigating judge, whom he had already attempted to disparage by publishing tracts a few months previously, when the debate had centred exclusively on that judge and his behaviour.
The factual basis for the applicant’s charge of laxity against the judge (the decision to release two robbers) had been erroneous since the latter had not taken the decision in question. As regards the other comments, which might be described as value judgments rather than factual statements, in view of their general tone and context, they had been based on the single fact that the applicant had been formally charged by judge D. and the former’s animosity against that judge, and had had nothing to do with any intention on the applicant’s part to critique the functioning of the judicial system.
Therefore, in the absence of any wider debate which could objectively have been useful in terms of public information, and which might have taken the statements made by an MP as credible and reliable data, it had not been at all unreasonable to conclude that the comments and statements made had amounted to a gratuitous personal attack and could be deemed deceptive, given the lack of any objective explanation from the applicant.
The impugned comments had also undermined citizens’ trust in the integrity of the judiciary, given that the applicant had alleged that the judge had behaved like a “political commissar” opposing his own political action – requesting the judge’s transfer, in breach of the independence of the judiciary.
The applicant wrongfully compared his case to that of Roland Dumas v. France (34875/07, 15 July 2010, Information Note 132): in the judgment in the latter case, which had concerned a conviction not for contempt of court but for defamation arising from passages of a book comprising insulting comments about a judge, the Court had not substituted its assessment for that of the domestic courts on whether the passages had impugned the honour of the judge in question, but had held that the literary context of the impugned passages had not been sufficiently taken into account. In the present case, on the other hand, the reasons given for the judgments delivered had been relevant and sufficient.
As regards the EUR 1,000 fine paid by the applicant, not only had it involved a modest sum, but also it had had no impact on the applicant’s political career, since he had been re-elected as an MP in 2007 and 2012.
In conclusion, the applicant’s comments had exceeded the degree of exaggeration or provocation which was permitted in the context of political discourse; they had not therefore merited the enhanced protection accorded to the expression of political opinions. His conviction of contempt of court and the fine imposed on him had not been disproportionate to the legitimate aims pursued, that is to say protecting the reputation of others and safeguarding the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
Conclusion: inadmissible (manifestly ill-founded).