Israel's Supreme Court Slams Government for Curbing Freedom of Expression

Ruling against a town's removal of political billboards, Justice Yoram Danziger wrote that criticism of the state is integral to democracy

Supreme Court Justice Yoram Danziger in 2014.
Olivier Fitoussi

Supreme Court Justice Yoram Danziger lambasted the government on Monday over what he termed its efforts to curtail freedom of expression.

We are witness to repeated attempts to challenge freedom of expression, he wrote at the end of a ruling issued by the court. The contexts are varied and creative: from freedom of expression in journalism and the arts through freedom of expression in academia to freedom of expression in the political realm, Danziger said.

Each case, of course, should be considered on its own merits. Nevertheless, its important to note that in many of these cases, as in this one, the attempt to erode freedom of expression is actually coming from the government. This is worrying in itself, particularly when its aimed at minorities or marginal groups that seek to criticize the government and its institutions.

It must be said clearly, Danziger continued, that criticism of the state and its institutions is integral and necessary to a democratic society. Silencing eats away at the pillars of a democratic society. Therefore, especially in these contexts, we must scrupulously uphold the right of citizens to express opposition to the government.

The case involved the removal by Givat Shmuel of billboard advertisements reading, For the armys sake, we apparently need the occupation, and aimed at sparking public discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The city argued that its billboards were meant for commercial advertising, not politically charged statements, and that the statements in question hurt public sensibility.

A district court rejected this argument, saying the city had no authority to bar any message from its billboards unless the content was illegal or hurt public sensibility, and it had failed to prove the messages would in fact hurt the publics sensibilities. The city appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

On Monday, Danziger and fellow justices Elyakim Rubinstein and Neal Hendel upheld the lower courts decision. They also ordered the city to pay the organization behind the billboards 15,000 shekels ($4,200) in court costs.