Webster’s Dictionary defines “speech” as “We don’t own a copy of Webster’s Dictionary, actually, someone should hook us up.” But in practical terms, the blanket term “speech” has come to encompass a wide variety of expressions, with courts ruling that everything from gestures, to actual spoken words, to even something as non-talk-y as liking a Facebook post all qualify as some form of speech, with legal ramifications therein. But not, according to an Austrian court last week, the humble fart.
This tyrannical curtailing of flautus rights comes to us via Vice, which reports on the case of a man known only as “Mr. AB.” This anonymous free speech hero was approached by a Viennese police officer last year and, during the conversation, happened to engage in a little of what the French call la petite fart—garnering a 500 euro fine in the process. (That’s roughly $598 in U.S. dollars, a truly punishing poot-to-pay ratio.) Now, Mr. AB and his attorneys are asserting that this incident was, first of all, an accident, and thus shouldn’t be punished. But they also argued that farting is free speech—an argument that the Austrian judge dealt a crippling blow to, with all the righteous fury of he or she who previously smelt it.
Specifically, the judge ruled that neither farts nor burps—and yeah, they’ve come for the burps, too—contain “communicative content.” (And all we can say there is that the judge in question must have a much less exciting diet than our own.) More worryingly, though, is that the judge asserted that, even if farts did count as “speech,” it still would have been illegal, since the passed gas would be considered “a form of expression that transcends the boundaries decency.”
Here’s the thing, though: Austria is a member state of the European Union, and, as such, is bound by the strictures of the Union’s Charter Of Fundamental Rights, first signed in 2009—and yes, we looked up the Charter Of Fundamental Rights Of The European Union for this stupid fart-law article. Article 11 of that same document clearly spells out (with no mention of “decency” requirements) that “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.” The wording is unambiguous: Let the farts be free!
Mr. AB apparently agrees; the Vice report notes that, while the judge did drop the fine to 100 Euros, the defendant intends to appeal anyway, so that this battle may spread upward into the Austrian courts, rising like a warm and sulfurous breeze. “It’s a matter of principle for us,” the man’s lawyer said. “Because it’s petty to get a punishment for a fart.”