European court finds banning of play in Malta unlawful

Maltese authorities claimed that play showed contempt for Auschwitz victims

The case before the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights  (ECHR) arose after the group’s application for a licence to put the play on in 2007 had been denied. Photograph: Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images

The case before the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights  (ECHR) arose after the group’s application for a licence to put the play on in 2007 had been denied. Photograph: Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images

 

The banning of a theatrical production by Malta constituted a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights’ protection of free speech, a European court has found.

It had been claimed by the Maltese authorities that Stiching, written by the Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson and produced by Unifaun Theatre Productions Limited, was blasphemous, showed contempt for the victims of the Auschwitz death camp, portrayed dangerous sexual perversions, referred to the sexual assault of children and contained a eulogy to the child murderers Fred and Rosemary West.

The case before the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights  (ECHR) arose after the group’s application for a licence to put the play on in 2007 had been denied, a decision upheld in the domestic courts.

The licensing board claimed that “the play is a sinister tapestry of violence and perversion where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. The board feels that in this case the envelope has been pushed beyond the limits of public decency”.

The author and the production company claimed that the play was a legitimate exploration of a failed relationship between two people and the disintegration of their personalities under the pressures they faced. Sexual perversion and blasphemy were, they argued, expressions of that pain. The play had been put on in many other countries, and had won several awards, they said.

‘Badly drafted’

A consultant psychiatrist, giving evidence in the original court hearing, stated that in his opinion the play was a love story which unfortunately turned out very badly.

A priest at the same hearing said that when one was ready to study illnesses and the suffering of people who were going through pain one must be democratic and tolerant and give society the chance to understand those not living normally.

The ECHR said that before it considered whether such censorship was justifiable as “necessary in a democratic society” it had to rule on whether it was properly “prescribed by law”. It found that the law/regulation was badly drafted and unacceptable. It “was not of a sufficient quality” and therefore the authorities’ interference was “a result of a procedure which was not prescribed by law”.

In the circumstances it did not have to consider the merits of the play or its obscenity and ruled for the theatre group which it awarded €10,000 in damages and €10,000 costs.