Laughing matters: Humor, free speech and hate speech at the European Court of Human Rights

Alberto Godioli, Jennifer Young, Brando Matteo Fiori

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This article conducts an interdisciplinary analysis of a corpus consisting of ten cases from the European Court of Human Rights. The selected cases range from 2004 to 2022 and engage with the nexus between hate speech and humorous expression, spanning across various forms of humor (from political satire to disaster jokes) and different media (from verbal jokes to cartoons). Building on insights from linguistics, semiotics and literary theory, we discuss how the ECtHR deals with the interpretive challenges posed by humor, with particular attention to the following key aspects: (1) The rhetorical/semiotic mechanisms underlying the contested verbal, visual or multimodal texts; (2) The dialogue between the contested expression and previous texts by means of allusion, commentary or parody; (3) The role played by a broad range of contextual factors, including the conventions of a given humorous genre as well as the specific socio-political circumstances in which humor is produced and circulated; (4) The possible outcomes of the interpretive process, namely the different manners in which humor and disparagement may relate to each other in a given disputed expression; (5) The ways in which courts can reconstruct the actual or presumed reception of an ambiguous joke or cartoon within a given audience. In addition to highlighting a number of recurring issues and occasional inconsistencies in the corpus, this contribution aims to demonstrate how humanities-based humor research can set the basis for a more consistent and methodical approach to humor in court, with special but not exclusive regard to hate speech jurisprudence.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2241-2265
Number of pages25
JournalInternational Journal of the Semiotics of Law
Early online date8 Nov 2022
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2022


  • European Court of Human Rights
  • Hate speech
  • Humor
  • Metaphor
  • Metonymy
  • Satire

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