Bumbeș v. Romania, No. 18079/15, ECtHR (Fourth Section), 3 August 2022
In the case of Bumbeș v. Romania, the applicant, Mr. Bumbeș, a known activist, had been sanctioned for organizing and participating in a peaceful protest against the Roșia Montană mining project. Specifically, he had handcuffed himself to the barriers blocking access to the parking area of the Romanian government’s headquarters together with three other people. The national authorities found his actions unlawful since they violated the public peace and order and the norms of social coexistence; moreover, Mr. Bumbeș did not comply with the three-day prior notice requirement set out by Romanian law to stage a demonstration. Therefore, he turned to the European Court of Human Rights, complaining of an interference with his right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.
The Court initially qualified the applicant’s request. First, it noted that the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are fundamental in a democratic society. They are closely linked, since the protection of personal opinions, secured by Article 10 ECHR, is one of the objectives of freedom of peaceful assembly as enshrined in Article 11 ECHR. However, the Court found that the complaint filed by Mr. Bumbeș mainly concerned an alleged interference with his right to freedom of expression: in fact, he had been sanctioned for protesting against government policies. Hence, the European judges found it appropriate to examine the case under Article 10 ECHR, interpreted in light of Article 11 ECHR.
Having ascertained that the interference with the applicant’s right to freedom of expression was prescribed by law and pursued a legitimate aim, the Court questioned whether it was “necessary in a democratic society” (pursuant to Article 10§2 ECHR). First, it reiterated that there is little scope under the Convention for restrictions on political speech or debates on questions of public interest and it pointed out that the government’s policies concerning the Roșia Montană mining project were undoubtedly a topic of public interest. Second, referring to the principles that it has established in the context of Article 11 ECHR, the Court clarified that a situation of unlawfulness, such as that arising under Romanian law from the organization of a demonstration without prior notification, does not by itself justify an interference with the right to freedom of assembly. In the case of peaceful demonstrations, public authorities must show a certain “degree of tolerance”, which have to be defined in concrete terms by examining the circumstances of the case and, specifically, the extent of the “disruption of ordinary life” caused by the events. In this regard, the European judges blamed the Romanian authorities for failing to assess the level of disruption generated by the applicant’s actions. Indeed, domestic courts merely observed that the applicant had failed to comply with the prior-declaration requirement and that his having handcuffed himself to the barrier could be considered to be acts that had breached the public peace and order and the norms of social coexistence. Along these lines, the Court underlined that the imposition of a sanction on the author of an expression that qualifies as political can have an undesirable chilling effect on public speech – regardless of whether the sanction is lenient, as in the present case.
In light of the above, the Court found that the decision to restrict the applicant’s freedom of expression was not necessary for a democratic society. Therefore, it found a violation of Article 10 ECHR interpreted in light of Article 11 ECHR.