The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on Tuesday that Lithuania's law enforcement authorities discriminated against a gay couple when they refused to investigate hate speech on social media.
“The Court [...] considered that the applicants’ homosexual orientation had played a role in the way they had been treated by the authorities,” the ECHR said in its ruling.
Five years ago, the male couple posted a photo on Facebook of themselves kissing.
The post received dozens of comments, including calls for the two gay men to be “thrown into gas chambers”, “exterminated”, “burned” and “killed”.
Prosecutors in Klaipėda, western Lithuania, and courts rejected the couple's request to open an investigation into incitement to hatred and discrimination.
‘Unethical expression of opinion’
The authorities decided that the commentators on social media had expressed their opinion using “inappropriate words”, but their behavior did not warrant prosecution.
Law-enforcement officials described the photo as “eccentric” and “deliberately provocative”.
A Klaipėda court said in its ruling that the two young men had to be aware that the majority of the Lithuanian society “very much appreciate traditional family values”.
“The authors of the comments used inappropriate words to express their disapproval of the homosexual relationship, but the mere use of obscene words does not warrant criminal prosecution,” the court said.
The two men – Pijus Beizaras and Mangirdas Levickas – maintain that the authorities' refusal to launch a pre-trial investigation into the hateful comments contributed to an atmosphere of impunity and intimidation that led to insults against them.
They say law-enforcement officials did not even question the authors of the comments and did not regard calls to kill them as incitement to hatred.
“If those comments were only ‘unethical’ expressions of opinion, it becomes unclear what statements would be sufficient to qualify as ‘publicly ridiculing, expressing contempt for, urging hatred or inciting discrimination’,” the applicants said.
The two men disagree that the expression of affection constituted “eccentric behaviour”, since they did not violate the rights of others by posting the picture on social media.
The ECHR decided that Lithuania must pay each applicant 5,000 euros in non-pecuniary damage and 5,000 euros more to cover their costs and expenses.
“The Court thus found that the hate comments had been inspired by a bigoted attitude towards the homosexual community in general and that the same discriminatory state of mind had been at the core of the authorities’ failure to comply with their duty to investigate in an effective manner whether those comments had constituted incitement to hatred and violence,” according to the ruling.