Satire is not an easy concept to define. Jonathan Greenberg, in The Cambridge Introduction to Satire, manages to summarise the diverse satirical writings of raunchy Restoration-era poets, the author Salmon Rushdie and New York Times food critic Pete Wells as all sharing one key attribute: “…none of the writing is merely a work of aggression or transgression. They all shape their judgments into an artistic form and blend attack with entertainment.” Such combination of attack, art and entertainment – most often for the purposes of lampooning and criticising cultural mores, political norms and public figures – is the best way to conceptualise satire in order to examine its treatment under law.
The European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR“) held in the seminal 2007 case Vereinigung Bildender Künstler v Austria that “…satire is a form of artistic expression and social commentary and, by its inherent features of exaggeration and distortion of reality, naturally aims to provoke and agitate. Accordingly, any interference with an artist’s right to such expression must be examined with particular care.“
Despite such strong support for the protections which should be afforded to satire and the satirist, there is little case law which deals with the subject directly – at least in the international legal sphere – other than a handful of cases heard before the ECtHR. However, the international and regional institutions examined in this fact sheet have all deemed, either through their case law or statements of principles, that shocking and offensive speech and art is protected under freedom of expression laws more generally. Satire, which is often shocking or offensive by nature, should therefore be protected in each of the systems discussed below – particularly where it has a political element.
Any defence of satire or satirists should not ignore broader freedom of expression laws, precedents and arguments – particularly in relation to the protection of journalistic and artistic speech and expression. A full examination of these wider issues is beyond the scope of this fact sheet, however.
This fact sheet therefore aims to provide a brief overview of the international and regional and standards applicable specifically to satire by analysing the key international and regional human rights law instruments, the decisions of the bodies and authorities entrusted with their interpretation, and important decisions of certain courts.
Download the factsheet here.
Many thanks to Shearman & Sterling for their support in drafting this resource.
 J. Greenberg, The Cambridge Introduction to Satire (Cambridge, 2019), p.7
 Vereinigung Bildender Künstler v Austria (no. 68354/01, 25 January 2007), 33
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