Women's Rights Posters Do Not Insult WWII Resistance Symbol

A regional court in Poland has upheld the acquittal of Green Party activists accused of insulting the anchor, a sign of the Polish WWII underground state.

The activists were accused of committing the offence by displaying a poster with gender symbols painted at the tips of the anchor symbol. The judgment of acquittal, delivered on 22 February, is final and binding.

The accused activists were represented pro bono by Artur Pietryka, who agreed to appear in the case at the request of Liberties member the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR). The HFHR also filed an amicus curiae opinion in this case.

Charges after street protest

On 18 June 2016, Polish Green Party chair Małgorzata Tracz, together with activists Elżbieta Hołoweńko and Marcin Krawczyk, took part in the "Dignity March" protest for women’s rights.

The chief commissioner of the First Police Department in Warsaw filed a criminal complaint against the activists, accusing them of the commission of a petty offense under article 3(1) of the Polish Underground State Sign (Protection) Act by "publicly displaying a poster depicting a modified anchor sign with gender symbols added to it."

The poster also displayed the expression "Nie-podległa," a play of words around the Polish adjective for "independent."

District court acquits; police appeal

On 5 October 2017, the District Court for Warszawa-Śródmieście acquitted the three accused on all counts.

The court justified its verdict by emphasizing that the law does not impose a general prohibition against the transformation of the anchor sign but penalizes only those modifications that attempt to ridicule or insult the protected symbol.

In the court’s assessment, the message conveyed by the poster cannot be considered offensive, mocking or distasteful.

The court also noted that the accused had a right to lawfully manifest their beliefs, including with the use of the protected anchor symbol, as a form of legally protected free speech.

The police department challenged the court’s decision and the public prosecutor filed an appeal to the regional court.

Regional Court: appeal has no merit

The regional court upheld the acquittal handed down by the first instance court, dismissing the appeal as meritless.

In the verbal justification of the judgment, the court emphasized that the law allows modifications of national symbols as long as such modifications do not insult a given symbol.

The appellate court also ruled that any general prohibition against modifications would turn those symbols into lifeless and rusty museum artifacts while modern iterations of such symbols revive them and connect us with our history, creating a living memory of the past.

HFHR’s opinion

"We are satisfied with [the] judgment and we agree with the arguments presented in the verbal justification: not all modifications of the anchor symbol are insulting to the sign, only those that express contempt for this symbol by taking an insulting form," says Konrad Siemaszko, a lawyer with the HFHR. "In our amicus curiae opinion, we also noted that the display of the 'Polka Nie-podległa' poster can be considered a voice in a key public debate, which is a specially protected type of speech. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the freedom of speech and assembly guarantee not only the very possibility of taking the streets and expressing one’s opinion, but also ensure that individuals may freely choose a type of speech and a way of protest."