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Freedom of speech, UFOs and The Sun

The tabloid's report of a case involving a UFO cult and the European Court of Human rights was highly misleading.

A Raelian poster from the US.
A Raelian poster from the US. Photograph: Getty Images

The Sun this weekend offered its readers new evidence of the lunacy of the European Court of Human Rights. "Euro judges back crackpot cult’s right to promote alien contact", screamed the headline, referencing last week's decision by the court's Grand Chamber in an appeal brought by the Swiss Raelians, who had been banned under municipal laws from putting up posters advertising their UFO-based religion. 

The story went on to denounce the judges for backing the "nutty group's demand to encourage everyone to talk to ALIENS." The court had "upheld their bid to plaster walls with posters urging people to contact ETs" because stopping them would impede their right to free expression, despite the fact that the Swiss Government had "tried to ban the posters on 'moral' grounds as they could cause alarm."

The Sun derided this decision as "the latest twisting of human rights laws by the politically correct judges", alongside the court's earlier demand that prisoners be given the vote, and brings in a UKIP MEP, Paul Nuttall, to complain that the "European judges must be on another planet".

So the Raelians won, right? No. They lost. On all counts. The Raelians' right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention was not absolute, the judgement noted, and could be overridden where it was considered "necessary in a democratic society" or for the protection of health and morals. Although the posters in question were fairly inoffensive - featuring images of UFOs, pyramids and extraterrestrial beings along with the address of the Raelian website - a bare majority of the court (nine votes to eight) nevertheless decided that it was proportionate for Swiss authorities to ban them. (The judgement is available on the ECtHR's website.)

The Sun's story wasn't merely inaccurate. It was the precise opposite of the truth.

A bit of background. The Raelian movement (cult, sect, religion, whatever) was established in 1976. Its founder, Claude Vorilhon - also known as Rael - claims to have been visited by aliens who imparted to him the truth about the origin and destiny of humankind. Human beings and other life-forms on earth were, he was told, neither created by God nor the product of Darwinian evolution but were rather the result of genetic engineering by extraterrestrial beings known as the Elohim. Raelians refer to this as "intelligent design for atheists".

Besides personal meetings with the Elohim, Vorilhon relied on a highly literal reading of the Bible, interpreted as an historical record of UFO contacts. For example, Noah's Ark wasn't a floating zoo but rather a spaceship which contained an extensive library of DNA samples. Jonah was rescued by a submarine. Jesus was the product of artificial insemination using the DNA of the Elohim president Yahweh, which is why he was described as the son of God. As such he had telepathic abilities, and later enjoyed access to Elohim technology, which enabled him to perform "miracles".  Claude Vorilhon himself was conceived in the same way.

Other distinctive Raelian ideas include promotion of human cloning, seen as the means by which human evolution will be taken to the next level, the building of "embassies" so that the Elohim will have someone to greet them when they return to earth, and "sensual massage", which is designed to lead to a state of bliss known as "cosmic orgasm". Raelians practise free love and lead campaigns against the Roman Catholic Church's stance on birth control. Vorilhon also advocates "geniocracy" - a system of government under which no one with an IQ less than ten percent higher than the average population would be allowed to vote, and no one with an IQ less than fifty percent higher than average would be allowed to hold public office. Raelian symbolism is also controversial because it incorporates the Swastika, which the group claims is a symbol of peace.

So yes, the Raelians have unconventional beliefs. In Sun-speak, this naturally makes them "crackpot" and "nutty". 

In the 2001 ruling that the Raelians were challenging, the canton of Neuchatel declared that the group was not protected by the principle of religious freedom because "it was to be regarded as a dangerous sect." The Swiss authorities objected in particular to the promotion of human cloning (illegal in Switzerland) and "geniocracy". They also relied on suggestions (which the Raelians deny) that the religion promoted paedophilia and sexual abuse as well as sexual allegations made in the past against members of the movement. 

The European court found that all this was sufficient to uphold the ban on the Raelian posters. The broad "margin of appreciation" allowed to member countries to restrict free speech in areas involving possible ethical or religious offence, and also in advertising. Although the posters weren't directly commercial, they were indirectly inviting recruitment and therefore might be considered as a form of advertising. As such, the Swiss authorities were perfectly free to restrict them. This is, of course, entirely contrary to the Sun's wilful misinterpretation of the case.

The court found that the ban was not disproportionate since the Raelians were still able to have a website. And of course, there was nothing stopping them from putting up their posters in places where the authorities have not banned them. Perhaps this is why The Sun felt able to lament that "the authorities are now only allowed to stop them from sticking up the images of aliens and flying saucers on public buildings." Needless to say, however, this was never the issue. On the question before the Grand Chamber, whether the authorities could ban the posters on sites for which they had responsibility, the majority decided that they could. 

The result may have implications well beyond the "crackpot cult" of the Raelians. In the UK, for example, the Advertising Standards Authority enforces a code that is notoriously restrictive in matters of "offence". It has banned adverts for such products ice-cream and mobile phones which employed satirical religious imagery, and in the run-up to the 2011 Census the British Humanist Association was forbidden from using the slogan "If you're not religious, for God's sake say so!" The ASA has been accused of not giving sufficient weight to Article 10 rights to free expression when applying the code. The Raelian case, however, suggests that Article 10 rights are fairly weak - certainly much weaker than the First Amendment of the US Constitution - and can be set aside quite easily on the vague grounds of "protection of health and morals". 

A broad application of "margin of appreciation" in Article 10 cases means that campaigners for free expression may get little comfort from Strasbourg. It's not a decision I particularly welcome, especially as the court's majority seems to have been swayed by the unconventional nature of Raelian beliefs and practices. It's true that the Raelians were only banned from putting up certain posters in certain places, but access to public space is itself an important aspect of free expression. 

As the powerful dissenting judgement stressed, Article 10 is "an essential provision" that underpins democracy and that "any restriction of that freedom must be strictly justified by a pressing social need and narrowly circumscribed by relevant and sufficient reasons." Given that the Raelians remain a legal organisation, there seems little basis to restrict them from publicising their activities.

In this case, perhaps, a little more interference from "politically correct" judges in Strasbourg in favour of a "nutty" UFO cult might have been welcome.