Strasbourg Observers

Academic Freedom and the European Court of Human Rights

July 22, 2010

In Sapan v. Turkey (8 June 2010) the European Court of Human Rights emphasised the importance of academic freedom of expression. The case concerned the publication of a book entitled “Tarkan – anatomy of a star” (Tarkan – yıldız olgusu), in which a doctoral thesis was reproduced in part. The first part of the book analysed the emergence of stardom as a phenomenon in Turkey and the second part focused on Tarkan, a well-known pop singer there. Upon a complaint of the singer, the Turkish courts ordered the seizure of the book.

Most importantly, in ruling that the seizure constituted a violation of article 10 ECHR, the Court relied among other things on the fact that the book partly reproduced a doctoral thesis. The Court emphasised the importance of academic freedom and held that, using scientific methods, the book addressed the social phenomenon of stardom. It could not be compared with the tabloid press, or gossip columns, whose role was generally to satisfy the curiosity of a certain type of reader about details of celebrities’ private lives.

At first I thought this was the first explicit recognition of the importance of academic freedom of expression by the Court.

However, it turns out it had already held in Sorguç v. Turkey (23 June 2009) that “the importance of academic freedom […] comprises the academics’ freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work and freedom to distribute knowledge and truth without restriction” (§ 35). In doing so, the Court referred to Recommendation 1762 (2006) of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) concerning the protection of academic freedom of expression. The Recommendation states among other things that “academic freedom in research and in training should guarantee freedom of expression and of action, freedom to disseminate information and freedom to conduct research and distribute knowledge and truth without restriction” and that “history has proven that violations of academic freedom and university autonomy have always resulted in intellectual relapse, and consequently in social and economic stagnation”.

Both cases cited above do not clarify exactly how important academic freedom is in the view of the Court. Noteworthy in this respect is the fact that the Court does not link the importance of academic freedom directly to a democratic society as it does for press freedom (“the essential function of the press in a democratic society” or “the vital role of the press as a “public watchdog” in a democratic society”). However, it is clear from Sapan v. Turkey that academic freedom enjoys a wider protection than some segments of the press do. It is thus relatively safe to assume that the Court places academic freedom more or less on the same level as the ‘serious’ press when it comes to determining the level of protection it deserves. While perhaps not crucial, an explicit confirmation of this assumption in future judgments would be welcome. After all, now we still need to use qualifiers such as “relatively” or “more or less”.

Recognition of academic freedom by the organs of the Council of Europe is in any case an important evolution. Not only for us – we are after all using our academic freedom of expression through this blog, but also – and much more importantly! – for the many academics who might find themselves under pressure to confirm to the wishes of the government of their country and are not always as free to express their objective findings and opinions as they should be. In this respect, the recognition by PACE of the role of academic freedom in the advancement of society and the confirmation of its importance by the European Court of Human Rights are crucial.

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