Labelling LGBTQ+ children's books "harmful" a violation of human rights, European court rules

The court also found that "promoting one type of family at the expense of another is never acceptable".

This article is about LGBTQ+ books for children. In the photo, two kids reading and scribbling on a book.
Image: Via Unsplash - Andrew Ebrahim

On January 23, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that labelling children’s books that are LGBTQ+ inclusive as “harmful” is a violation of freedom of expression.

The ruling concluded a case concerning measures taken by the Lithuanian authorities against a children’s book written by lesbian author Neringa Dangvydė Macatė. Titled Amber Heart, the book contained adaptations of traditional fairytales and included storylines about same-sex relationships and LGBTQ+ families.

After the book was published in 2013 by the Lithuanian University of Educational Science, eight members of the Lithuanian parliament sent a letter to the university to express their concerns over literature that “sought to instil in children the idea that marriage between persons of the same sex was a welcome phenomenon”.

They stated that the book did not comply with Lithuania’s law on the Protection of Minors Against the Detrimental Effect of Public Information, which prohibits the distribution of content to minors that “expresses contempt for family values, encourages the concept of entry into a marriage and creation of a family other than stipulated in the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania and the Civil Code of the Republic of Lithuania.”

Following this, the university’s publishing house suspended the distribution of Amber Heart and later resumed it with all copies of the book bearing a warning label saying that the content might be “harmful” to children under 14 years of age.

Author Macatė filed civil proceedings against the university, however the Lithuanian court endorsed the measures taken against the book. Then in 2020, the author passed away, but her mother decided to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

With its ruling, the Court established that labelling children’s books containing LGBTQ+ storylines and themes as “harmful” is in violation of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects freedom of expression. The Court also found that the measures taken against Macatė’s book were limiting children’s access to information about same-sex relationships as they have to equivalent information about different-sex unions.

Lithuania is the only Baltic country that does not recognise same-sex unions and its constitution explicitly states that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. The country ranked 35 in last year’s ILGA’s Rainbow Europe annual review, which rates all 49 European countries on the basis of their legal and policy situation in regard to LGBTQ+ rights.

Commenting on the judgement in the Lithuanian case, ILGA-Europe’s Head of Litigation, Arpi Avetisyan said: “The Court’s message is clear: protection of children cannot be used as an excuse for censoring information about LGBTI rights, both on the part of the authors for promoting diversity and equality, and for children to learn about acceptance of all members of the society on an equal footing.

“This case also sends another important message, which is that all families are equal,” Avetisyan continued. “In the Court’s own words: Promoting one type of family at the expense of another is never acceptable under the [European] Convention.”

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