Freedom of peaceful assembly provides, in the words of the UN Human Rights Council, “invaluable opportunities” for a range of political, literary, cultural, economic, social and religious activities.
International courts and mechanisms recognize that there is a particular risk of illegitimate restrictions when the right to assemble is used to express views critical of the authorities or other powerful interests. Restrictions in these areas are to be closely scrutinized.
The Human Rights Committee has stated, with regard to the ICCPR:
[T]he value placed by the Covenant upon uninhibited expression is particularly high in the circumstances of public debate in a democratic society concerning figures in the public and political domain.
The IACHR and the Inter-American Court have
consistently held that the necessity test for limitations should be applied more strictly when dealing with expressions referring to the State, public interest affairs, public officials in the exercise of their functions or candidates running for public office, or private individuals voluntarily involved in public affairs, as well as political discourse and discussions.
The ECtHR similarly underlined, in Sergey Kuznetsov v. Russia, that restrictions on assemblies on “political speech or serious matters of public interest” do a disservice to democracy and require strong reasons:
[A]ny measures interfering with the freedom of assembly and expression other than in cases of incitement to violence or rejection of democratic principles – however shocking and unacceptable certain views or words used may appear to the authorities – do a disservice to democracy and often even endanger it. In a democratic society based on the rule of law, the ideas which challenge the existing order must be afforded a proper opportunity of expression through the exercise of the right of assembly as well as by other lawful means …
[T]he Court notes that the purpose of the picket was to attract public attention to the alleged dysfunction of the judicial system in the Sverdlovsk Region. This serious matter was undeniably part of a political debate on a matter of general and public concern. The Court reiterates in this connection that it has been its constant approach to require very strong reasons for justifying restrictions on political speech or serious matters of public interest such as corruption in the judiciary …
In Hyde Park and Others v. Moldova (Nos. 5 and 6), the ECtHR further stressed the need to be tolerant towards criticism of public figures, even if it is expressed in harsh terms:
The applicants sought to protest against alleged harassment by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. … Even if their signs and chants were calculated to insult the Minister, he was clearly a public figure of some prominence in Moldova. In a democratic society, greater tolerance should be shown to those expressing opinions which are critical of such figures, even if those opinions are expressed inarticulately or intemperately.