This is the question that the European Court of Human Rights has agreed to answer. Seized by a prisoner who complains he was confiscated his pornographic magazines, the Court must decide whether prisons can legitimately prohibit the possession and use of such material.
The facts of this case can be easily summarised: the applicant is serving a prison sentence in Slovakia for a double murder and complains that he has had pornographic material taken away from him and that he has been punished for this breach of prison rules. According to him, this confiscation and the general prohibition on possessing such material infringed his privacy and freedom of expression.
The Court will judge whether access to pornography in prison is a right guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights.
The ECLJ was authorised by the Court to intervene in this case and submitted written observations (available here in English).
In its observations, the ECLJ first recalled that pornography is inherently immoral. Accordingly, States may, as the European Convention indicates, limit certain freedoms in order to protect morals, as well as the safety, health, or rights of others. The protection of morals is a State prerogative recognised by the Convention in its Articles 8, 9, 10, 11 and 21.
The ECLJ based its observations on its report “Pornography and Human Rights” to inform the Court about the considerable research establishing that repeated use of pornography causes a risk of addiction, as well as numerous psychological pathologies and relationship disorders. It systematically devalues people and stimulates violence, aggression and even sadism or masochism. The devaluation of women is quasi-systematic in pornography, where they are presented in a stereotypical and humiliating way.
The ECLJ also emphasised that it is all the more legitimate to protect prisoners from the perverse effects of pornography as they are particularly vulnerable to it. Their solitude and idleness increase the risk of addiction. Incitement to impulsive violence caused by pornography is even more problematic for prisoners guilty of sexual violence. As a result, failure to prevent the dissemination of pornographic material in places of detention would be a breach of the State’s duty to ensure the good health and safety of its prisoners, as well as their rehabilitation.
Admittedly, in recent decades, the European Court has made a very limited application of the protection of “morals,” covering it with the cloak of charity of private life. However, when it comes to pornography, there are other grounds, relating to health, safety and dignity, that advocate for greater control. There seems to be a growing awareness in society of the harmfulness of pornography and the need to protect those involved and the young and vulnerable. Two draft resolutions are currently under discussion in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, recommending that States should exercise greater control to specially protect women’s and children’s rights.
The ECLJ expresses the hope that the ECHR will be able to promote an interpretation of human rights that respects human health and dignity.