Supreme Court Protects Freedom of Speech from Political Attacks

23 July 2015

The Israeli Supreme Court ruled last week that not only were no damages to be awarded to the extreme right-wing Im Tirzu organization in response to their lawsuit against the “Im Tirzu is a Fascist Organization” Facebook group, but that frivolous lawsuits challenging the right to political speech should be thrown out by the lower courts without trial and that this one should never have been accepted in the first place.

This decision is an important victory for free speech. The Supreme Court also determined that in future cases like these, the plaintiff should be responsible for the legal fees of the defendant, which will enable small groups to defend themselves from attacks on their rights by larger, well-funded players.

In this case, in lieu of paying legal fees, Im Tirzu agreed to donate NIS 30,000 to “Let the Animals Live,” an organization that takes in distressed animals, rehabilitates them, and finds them adoptive homes.

In an op-ed, NIF’s president Talia Sasson explained the importance of the case: “Small but powerful, [the verdict] reinforces anyone who believes democratic regimes can tolerate a broad spectrum of different opinions, both ideological and political, and that debate and persuasion constitute the essence of democracy. Democracy is about arguing and exposing the truth; it expresses the desire for change of any type, including political change; it extensively utilizes freedom of speech and reflects the conviction that anyone should be allowed to live according to his or her beliefs.”

“This short verdict expresses a clear and lucid position, namely that it is the Court’s duty to protect freedom of speech and ideological freedom of expression rather than being a tool in the hands of anyone who seeks to selectively ban opposing viewpoints from the public sphere. The verdict restricts the ability to use libel claims as tools for thwarting political struggles. The Court’s instruction to future plaintiffs as well as judges demonstrates that the Court understands well that libel claims and the non-awarding of legal costs deter defendants, thus seriously curbing freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and the basic liberties enabled by them. The Supreme Court is encouraging the courts to defend freedom of speech by awarding legal expenses to anyone who is sued because of his or her political views.”

In the past several years, NIF has provided special grants to activists targeted by what are known in the US as “SLAPP” lawsuits, designed by ultra-nationalist groups to subject progressive organizations to expensive and time-consuming court action against their activities.

Photo Credit: Flickr user scottgunn