Poland: Bart Staszewski facing SLAPPs for legitimately defending LGBT rights (joint communication)

The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts to the Government of Poland on 18 November 2021. The Government responded to the letter on 13 January 2022. Both the communication and reply were made public on 17 January 2021. All communications and replies can be found on the UN Communications’ Database.


Topic: criminalisation of Bart Staszewski due to his artistic expression and legitimate exercise of his right to take part in social debates on decisions and policies that have an impact on the rights of LGBT persons.

Mr. Bart Staszewski is a human rights defender of the rights of LGBT persons and documentary film-maker in Poland. He is a co-founder of Lublin Equality March Association, an organisation which coordinates annual peaceful demonstrations in the city of Lublin against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2019, Mr. Staszewski was awarded the European Tolerantia Award for his human rights work.

We previously communicated concerns to the Polish Government on the alleged targeting of defenders of the human rights of LGBT persons in communications POL 3/2021 sent on 26 February 2021 and POL 1/2020 sent on 20 January 2021. In the latter we raised specific concerns regarding the municipal resolutions declaring the “local governments free from LGBT ideology”.

We thank Poland for the responses received to both communications. In the reply to POL 1/2020, we welcome the statement that “[t]here is an open, free debate going on in Poland about the [‘free from LGBT ideology’] resolutions, without the participation of state authorities”. We however regret that in the following paragraph, the Government comments negatively on the work of Mr. Bart Staszewski, despite the fact that Mr. Staszewski had not been mentioned in the communication.


In 2020, Mr. Bart Staszewski launched a photo project titled Zones, in which he briefly hung and photographed signs outside Polish towns that had passed symbolic resolutions declaring themselves to be “free from LGBT ideology”. The signs, which read “LGBT-free zone” in four languages, were placed alongside road signs of the town’s name. He took down the “LGBT-free zone” signs after the photographs were taken. The project aimed to draw public attention to the declarations.

In September and October 2020, representatives of the municipalities of Zakrzówek, Tuszów Narodowy and Niebylec, who were among the towns featured in the project, filed lawsuits for “defamation” against Mr. Staszewski under Article 23 of the civil code. The proceedings were filed on the basis that Mr. Staszewski’s art project portrays the towns as “LGBT-free zones”, which differs from the wording of the resolutions, local governments “free from LGBT ideology”. They reportedly argue that the artwork is misinformation, misleads the public and is, by consequence, defamatory.

Mr. Staszewski’s first hearing in the defamation case brought against him by the municipality of Zakrzówek was due to be held on 30 September 2021, however it was delayed until 25 November 2021 for technical reasons. If convicted, the prosecution is requesting that Mr. Staszewski makes a public apology.

The court dates for defamation hearings filed by Tuszów Narodowy and Niebylec against Mr. Staszewski have yet to be announced.

Mr. Staszewski has reportedly been stigmatised in the press and by public figures. After the campaign launched in 2020, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawieck accused Mr. Staszewski of carrying out a “hoax”. In a televised interview in October 2021, President Andrzej Duda called Mr. Staszewski “radical” and “aggressive” and labelled the campaign as “fake news”. He has also reportedly been receiving multiple death threats online.


In the communication, we expressed our deep concern with regards to the defamation cases brought against Mr. Staszewski by Polish municipalities, which appear to target his work advocating against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We see little difference between the practical consequences of differentiating between “LGBT-Free” zones or local governments “free from LGBT ideology”, as in both cases it appears that the objective is to eliminate the possibility of LGBT persons to enjoy their rights, including their right to freedom of movement and residence, and to freely express their sexual orientation and gender identity publicly. In this regard, we are deeply concerned that Mr. Staszewski is being stigmatised and criminalised for his legitimate human rights activities, for questioning public policies and for his artistic expression. Mr. Staszewski’s artistic expression is a legitimate exercise of his right to take part not only in cultural life, but also in social debates on decisions and policies that have an impact on human rights.

We are also deeply concerned by comments made by high ranking public officials stigmatising the work of Mr. Staszewski. Such comments are detrimental to the legitimacy of the work of human rights defenders, particularly defenders of LGBT rights, who face additional risks based on their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. We are concerned that such comments may fuel threats and attacks against LGBT persons and rights defenders. Furthermore, we wish to stress that artistic freedom has to be respected especially when radical, provocative or aggressive, as this is when it is most vulnerable. International standards on artistic freedom do not require accuracy of art projects.

Criminal defamation laws, particularly those that accommodate public officials bringing defamation claims against criticism of their activities in public office, are detrimental to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the right to take part in cultural and political life and should be revoked or revised. We remind your Excellency’s Government that criminal law should be used against speech only in very exceptional and most egregious circumstances of incitement to violence, hatred or discrimination. We are concerned that anti-defamation laws in Poland facilitate strategic litigation against public participation (SLAPP) by allowing for the judicial harassment of those exercising free speech and provoking public debate on human rights issues.

In light of communications POL 3/2021 and POL 1/2021, and despite assurances from the Government to the contrary in the responses received, we are deeply concerned that the case against Mr. Staszewski is demonstrative of a broader context of discrimination against LGBT persons in Poland.

Read the full communication Read the Govenment's response


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