Application Number 20373/17

European Court of Human Rights  

The applicant, a footballer, chanted the official greeting of the Ustashe movement and totalitarian regime of the Independent State of Croatia during a football match. The ECtHR found the application manifestly ill-founded.


Theme(s): Ethnic and Religious Hatred

Date: 22 January 2019

Description of applicant(s): Football player

Brief description of facts: The applicant had addressed the spectators at a football match by shouting “For Home” and when the spectators had replied “Ready,” the applicant repeated the same three more times. The national courts held that the said expression, irrespective of its original Croatian literary and poetic meaning, had also been used also as an official greeting of the Ustashe movement and totalitarian regime of the Independent State of Croatia. That phrase had been present in all official documents of that State. The national courts also held that the Ustashe movement had originated from fascism, based, inter alia, on racism, and thus symbolised hatred towards people of a different religious or ethnic identity and the manifestation of racist ideology. On that basis, the national courts found the applicant guilty of the minor offence of addressing messages to spectators of a football match, the content of which expresses or entices hatred on the basis of race, nationality and faith. The applicant received a fine of about EUR 3,300.

 (Alleged) target(s) of speech: Persons of a different religion and/or ethnicity

The Court’s assessment of impugned speech: The Court underlined the need to tackle racism in sport and found no reasons to substantiate its findings under Article 10 because of the following: the small penalty, the applicant’s profession as a footballer and, thus, his status as a role model (and the heightened impact of his speech as a result).

Important paragraph(s) from the judgment:

Para. 45: The Court attaches particular importance to the context, namely, that the applicant chanted a phrase used as a greeting by a totalitarian regime at a football match in front of a large audience to which the audience replied and that he did so four times. The Court considers that the applicant, being a famous football player and a role-model for many football fans, should have been aware of the possible negative impact of provocative chanting on spectators’ behaviour and should have abstained from such conduct.

Para. 48: In view of the foregoing, the Court discerns no strong reasons which would require it to substitute its view for that of the domestic courts and to set aside the balancing struck by them. It is satisfied that the disputed interference was supported by relevant and sufficient reasons and that the authorities of the respondent State, having regard to the relatively modest nature of the fine imposed on the applicant and the context in which the applicant shouted the impugned phrase, struck a fair balance between the applicant’s interest in free speech, on the one hand, and the society’s interests in promoting tolerance and mutual respect at sports events as well as combating discrimination through sport on the other hand, thus acting within their margin of appreciation.

 ECHR Article: Article 10

Decision: Manifestly ill-founded

Use of ‘hate speech’ by the Court in its assessment? No