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Féret v. Belgium, No. 15615/07, ECtHR (Second Section), 16 July 2009


Incitement to ethnic hatred through leaflets distributed during election campaigns. Lawful interference with freedom of expression.


1. Political speech that promotes hatred and discrimination on ethnic, cultural or religious grounds is a danger to social peace and stability in democratic societies and legitimises national authorities to restrict freedom of expression. Hate speech does not necessarily require incitement to violence or criminal acts. 

2. Although politicians enjoy broad freedom of expression in the electoral context, it is of paramount importance that they avoid comments that might foster intolerance. When presenting solutions to immigration-related issues, they should refrain from attitudes or comments that might promote racial discrimination. This is likely to cause social tensions and undermine trust in democratic institutions.
(In the present case, the applicant, a member of Parliament and chairman of the political party Front National in Belgium, was convicted of incitement to racial discrimination. Specifically, he distributed leaflets carrying slogans against immigrants during the election campaign. The Court noted that the contested expressions were discriminatory and segregationist and it pointed out that the context in which they had been disseminated had amplified their circulation, with a possible impact on public order and social cohesion. For these reasons, the Court considered that interference with the applicant's right to freedom of expression was necessary in a democratic society).