A book of fairy tales harmful for children?
Macatè v. Lithuania on restricting and labelling a children’s book that depicts same-sex families in a positive light
By Ingrida Milkaitė
Strasbourg Observers (31.03.2023) – On 23 January 2023, the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR found that restricting and labelling a book of fairy tales as harmful to children solely because of LGBTI content breached Article 10 ECHR. For the first time in the Court’s case-law, Macatė v. Lithuania
A summary of the facts
The case of Macatė v. Lithuania concerns a children’s book of fairy tales containing storylines about same-sex marriage published in December 2013. ‘Gintarinė širdis’ or ‘Amber Heart’ was written by Neringa Dangvydė Macatė, a professional writer and specialist in children’s literature, also openly homosexual. She passed away on 21 March 2020 and her mother continued the proceedings.
The applicant’s book (the English version is accessible free of charge here) contains six fairy tales aimed at children of primary school age (9–10-year-olds). The fairy tales – based on traditional fairy-tale motifs – depict members of various marginalised groups (different ethnic groups or people with intellectual disabilities) and address issues such as stigmatisation, bullying, divorced families and emigration, with the aim of teaching children to accept differences in the appearance and lifestyles of others (§ 57). Two of the stories concern relationships and marriages between persons of the same sex. One tale tells the story of a prince who “arrived at a city whose inhabitants were dark-skinned and fell in love with a male tailor” (§ 16). The other tale is about a princess who marries her childhood friend, a shoemaker’s daughter (§ 17) (the English version can be accessed here).
The book was published by the publishing house of the Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences (an autonomous, public institution), with partial funding from the Ministry of Culture. After its publication, three major events unfolded. On the 1st of March 2014, one of the biggest Lithuanian newspapers, ‘Lietuvos rytas’, published an article entitled “Fairy tales about non-traditional love – in children’s backpacks”. It contained an interview with the author and comments from members of the Lithuanian Parents’ Forum expressing criticism that stories about same-sex relationships were being presented to children (§ 19). Three days later, the Registry of the Government received an email from an individual alleging that the book was “encouraging perversions” and forwarded it to the Ministry of Culture. The Ministry requested the Inspectorate of Journalist Ethics to assess whether the book might be harmful to children. Finally, on the 20th of March 2014, eight members of the Lithuanian Parliament sent a critical letter to the Rector of the University, in which they referred to the article in ‘Lietuvos rytas’. The Rector then ordered the publishing house to suspend the distribution of the book.
The Inspectorate of Journalist Ethics (the Inspectorate) assessed the book as it is the institution in charge of monitoring the implementation of the Act on the Protection of Minors from Negative Effects of Public Information (the Minors Protection Act) (§ 85). Considering that “fairy tales that portray the relationship between same-sex couples as normal and self-evident are harmful to a child’s fragile, nascent worldview and are overly invasive, directive and manipulative” (§ 23), the Inspectorate concluded that the two fairy tales which depicted same-sex couples did not comply with section 4 § 2 (16) of the Minors Protection Act. Following the Inspectorate’s recommendation that the book be labelled with a warning that it might be harmful to children under 14, the University abided by it and resumed the book’s distribution a year later, with the book bearing a warning label.
The applicant lodged civil proceedings against the University, arguing that depiction of same-sex relationships could not be considered harmful for children of any age. Yet, in 2019, the measures taken against the book were endorsed by the national courts and the applicant’s claim was dismissed. Having exhausted all domestic remedies, she complained to the ECtHR about the temporary suspension of the distribution and subsequent labelling of her book. She alleged that those measures had been taken solely because her book contained a positive depiction of same-sex relationships. She argued that section 4 § 2 (16) of the Minors Protection Act had aimed at limiting the dissemination of any positive information about LGBTI persons, on the pretext of protecting children. She also complained, under Article 14 (prohibition of discrimination) in conjunction with Article 10 (freedom of expression), that the reason behind the restrictions on her book had been prejudice against sexual minorities.
Read the rest of the analysis HERE:
- A summary of the Grand Chamber’s judgment regarding Articles 10 and 14 of the ECHR
- Separate opinion
- Comment on the judgment and its potential future impact