Parliamentary Ombudsman Petri Jääskeläinen finds that the City of Vantaa violated graffiti artists' freedom of speech by removing a piece of graffiti criticising the suspected misuse of sports funds. The piece was painted on a communal graffiti wall maintained by the city.
The graffiti had concerned a leaked internal audit report of the city on the use of funds of a company owned by the city. The matter had been reported in a newspaper article titled "Thousands of euros wasted on liquor and expensive gifts ? secret report reveals the spending spree of Vantaa sports company?. The graffiti was painted during the weekend that followed the news article.
The piece portrayed the faces and names of the CEO of the company, the cityŽs land use, building and environment office manager who acted as the company's legal counsel, and the vice-chair of the city council who acted as the chairperson of the company. The portraits and names were accompanied with the caption "Hävetkää!? (Shame on you!) in large letters, and "Kiitos urheilupomot!? (Thank you big shots in sports!) in smaller letters.
Art and the freedom of speech and expression
The Ombudsman noted that the freedom of art included in the freedom of speech provides a general protection for the different forms of creative activities and self-expression. On the other hand, these freedoms are not entirely unlimited. For example, the freedom of speech and art does not include the absolute right to have your opinions expressed publicly and have your artworks presented in a certain medium or location. Artists, too, have responsibilities when exercising the freedom of expression, even though the regulation of the freedom of speech protects offensive and disturbing forms of expression as well as positive and harmless ones.
The graffiti wall is intended as a platform for changing outdoors artworks where graffiti artists paint new works to replace old pieces. Now, on the order of the city manager, the graffiti had first been partly painted over, and finally, the plates with the persons' portraits and names had been removed. The situation differed from the usual way the graffiti wall is used, where new graffiti is painted on top of old works. Therefore, the actions retrospectively interfered with the freedom of expression.
Was the interference of the freedom of speech legal, proportionate and necessary?
The Ombudsman noted that the intention of the city was legal and acceptable on a general level, i.e. to protect the depicted persons' honour. However, the people in question had been in such a position that the limits of criticism related to them were looser compared to regular residents.
The criticism expressed artistically in the graffiti had concerned the news published on the internal audit report of the city that dealt with suspicions about the abuse of funds by a company owned by the city. Therefore, the matter had been the subject of discussion locally and nationally, and the discussion concerned a generally important question. For these reasons, the threshold of interfering with the freedom of expression regarding the matter was high.
According to the Ombudsman's assessment, the persons in the graffiti were not depicted in a degrading manner; mainly, the portraits presented the artists' impression of the persons' faces. Moreover, the graffiti did not claim that anyone had committed a crime; the statement suggesting shamefulness was mostly an ethical and moral comment that could reasonably be expressed due to the news coverage of the matter.
The Ombudsman's assessment was that, in our democratic society, interfering with the graffiti artists' freedom of speech was not necessary. Therefore, the city has violated their freedom of speech.
In his assessment of the actions of the city, the Ombudsman took into account the fact that the piece had not been permanently destroyed. Instead, based on a suggestion by the city and organisation responsible for the maintenance of the graffiti wall, the piece had been moved in its entirety and original form to the city art museum with the consent of the artists.
Assessing the entire situation, Ombudsman Jääskeläinen's resolution was that the matter did not require any other further action than letting the Vantaa City Executive Board know that, in the Ombudsman's opinion, the graffiti artists' freedom of speech had been violated.
The full text of Parliamentary Ombudsman Petri Jääskeläinen's decision no 1206/2016 was published on the Parliamentary Ombudsman's website www.oikeusasiamies.fi/.
Further information is available from Referendary Counsellor Mikko Sarja, tel. +358 (0)9 432 3364.