The flash mobs * under the umbrella of the freedom of assembly

JUDGMENT

Obote v. Russia  19.11.2019 (no.  58954/09)

see here 

SUMMARY

The case concerned the applicant’s prosecution for taking part in a flash mob, which the courts
viewed as a static demonstration requiring previous notification.

The Court considered the flash mob a “peaceful assembly” and found that the reasons given by the
domestic authorities to justify its dispersal and the applicant’s prosecution had not been “relevant
and sufficient”.

It pointed out in particular that staging a demonstration without prior authorisation did not
necessarily justify interfering with a person’s right to freedom of assembly. Indeed, seven people
standing in silence while holding a blank sheet of paper could not count as a threat to public order

PROVISIONS

Article 11

PRINCIPAL FACTS 

The applicant, Andrey Obote, is a Russian national who was born in 1986 and lives in Mozhaysk
(Moscow Region, Russia).

Mr Obote and six other people gathered in front of the Office of the Russian Government in January
2009 in what the applicant describes as a flash mob. They had their lips covered with adhesive tape
and each held a blank sheet of paper. The police ordered the group to disperse and when Mr Obote
asked for the reason for that order he was taken to the police station.

He was charged under the Code of Administrative Offences for failing to give prior notification of a
public gathering, as required by the Public Events Act. A court subsequently fined him 1,000 Russian
roubles (about 22 euros at the time). The court found that he had taken part in a static
demonstration and that he had breached the procedure for public events. It rejected his argument
that the flash mob had not counted as involvement in a public event.

Mr Obote appealed against the judgment, challenging the applicability of the Public Events Act and
contesting the fine. The appeal court upheld the first-instance judgment.

THE DECISION OF THE COURT…

First, the Court found that the applicant’s flash mob, as he had described it, had come within the
notion of a “peaceful assembly” under Article 11 of the Convention. The dispersal of such an
assembly and the sanctions against the applicant had therefore constituted an interference with his
right to freedom of assembly as protected by that same article.

The Government had justified that interference by referring to the legitimate aim of the prevention
of disorder. However, the domestic judicial bodies had found the applicant guilty in the
administrative-offence proceedings, without assessing the level of disturbance caused by the flash
mob. They had simply found that the applicant had failed to comply with the prior-notification
requirement.

Moreover, staging a demonstration without prior authorisation did not necessarily justify interfering
with a person’s right to freedom of assembly. It was important that public authorities showed a
certain degree of tolerance towards demonstrators who were not violent. The Court found that
seven people standing in silence while holding a blank sheet of paper could hardly be described as
incitement to violence or represent a threat to public order.

Where the sanctions imposed on a demonstrator were criminal in nature, although classified as
administrative under domestic law, as in the applicant’s case, they required all the more
justification.

The Court therefore found that the reasons relied on by the State had not corresponded to a
pressing social need. Nor had they been sufficient to show that the interference had been
“necessary in a democratic society”. There had thus been a violation of Article 11.

Just satisfaction (Article 41)

The Court held that Russia was to pay the applicant 4,000 euros (EUR) in respect of non-pecuniary
damage.

 

*Flash mob is a neologism invented in 2003 to indicate a sudden concentration of people in a public space that dissolves in a short time, with the common goal of putting an unusual action into practice. The gathering is usually organized via the internet or mobile phones.


ECHRCaseLaw

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