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Free speech victory claimed as court stops order to halt NatCon

Belgian justice came to the rescue of the National Conservatism (‘NatCon’) conference in Brussels. Police had blockaded the conference in Brussels on the order of a local mayor who cited what he claimed were the objectionably right-wing views of some of the speakers. His order was overturned after the need to protect the freedoms of speech and assembly were invoked at an emergency late-night hearing by Belgium’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, writes Political Editor Nick Powell.

The legal challenge was filed by the conference organisers, with support from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) International, a faith-based legal advocacy group. They were responding halt the conference on the morning it opened, with police surrounding the venue and denying access to speakers, guests and caterers.

ADF claimed a victory for free speech after the court ruled that “Article 26 of the Constitution [of Belgium] grants everyone the right to assemble peacefully” and although the mayor had the authority to make police ordinances in case of “serious disturbance of the public peace or other unforeseen events”, in this case there was no sufficient threat of violence to justify this.

The court reasoned that “it does not seem possible to infer from the contested decision that a peace-disrupting effect is attributed to the congress itself”. Rather, as the decision notes, “the threat to public order seems to be derived purely from the reactions that its organisation might provoke among opponents”.

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Paul Coleman, Executive Director of ADF International, is a human rights lawyer who was speaking at the conference. He said that “in allowing the National Conservatism Conference to continue, the Administrative Court has come down on the side of basic human rights. While common sense and justice have prevailed, what happened yesterday is a dark mark on European democracy.

“No official should have the power to shut down free and peaceful assembly merely because he disagrees with what is being said. How can Brussels claim to be the heart of Europe if its officials only allow one side of the European conversation to be heard? 

“The kind of authoritarian censorship we have just witnessed belongs in the worst chapters of Europe’s history. Thankfully, the Court has acted swiftly to prevent the repression of our fundamental freedoms to both assembly and speech, thus protecting these essential characteristics of democracy for another day”.

The order to shut down the conference, issued by the mayor of the Saint-Josse-ten-Noode district of Brussels, had cited as justification that “[NatCon’s] vision is not only ethically conservative (e.g. hostility to the legalisation of abortion, same-sex unions, etc.) but also focused on the defence of ‘national sovereignty’, which implies, amongst other things, a ‘Eurosceptic’ attitude…”. 

It also stated that some of the speakers “are reputed to be traditionalists” and that the conference must be banned “to avoid foreseeable attacks on public order and peace”. 

Speaking before the decision was announced by the court, Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo condemned the actions of the mayor’s actions and defended the rights of the conference participants to freedom of speech and of assembly.”What happened at the Claridge [conference venue] today is unacceptable”, he wrote on X. “Municipal autonomy is a cornerstone of our democracy but can never overrule the Belgian constitution guaranteeing the freedom of speech and peaceful assembly since 1830. Banning political meetings is unconstitutional. Full stop”.

Those scheduled to speak included the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán; the leading British Eurosceptic Nigel Farage and the German Cardinal Ludwig Müller. The conference had already been cancelled by two other venues, under political pressure by mayors, in the days leading up to the event.

Belgian lawyer Wouter Vaassen, part of ADF International’s network of lawyers, filed the challenge. “We are greatly relieved that the Administrative Court rightfully has decided to block the unjust attempt to shut down the National Conservatism Conference, he said, but this should never have happened, especially in Brussels—the political heart of Europe.  

“The free and peaceful exchange of ideas, and the basic freedom of assembly, are hallmarks of a democratic Europe. That a legal challenge of this kind needed to be mounted simply to be able to gather as a peaceful conference is a disgrace. We must diligently protect our fundamental freedoms lest censorship become the norm in our supposedly free societies”.

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