Is it a crime to offend bread?

For one taxi company in the Russian town of Kostroma, the answer turned out to be yes. Sergey Fadeev explains.

In March 2013 a local taxi service in the Russian city of Kostroma was fined by the local antimonopoly authority for the publication of producing an ‘unethical” commercial advertisement to be broadcast on television. According to the official website of this authority, the offence was caused by text containing the following line: “If you make five typos in the word ‘bread’ — you get ‘taxi,’” followed by the telephone number of the service. For this, the company was fined 4,000 Roubles and the video banned. The antimonopoly service claimed that it had received complaints from the local Council of Veterans and the Federal Advertising Law and deemed that the video contained “a slogan which is offensive for products such as bread.”

Unfortunately, this comparatively minor incident reflects the increasingly arbitrary application of public offence legislation in the country. Russian Federal Advertising Law prohibits the use of “offensive words, obscene or offensive images, analogies and expressions, including those referring to gender, race, nationality, profession, social class, age, native language of an individual or a citizen, official state symbols (flags, coats of arms, anthems), religious symbols, cultural heritage sites, as well as the heritage sites included in the World Heritage List.”  It is very hard to say under which of these categories bread itself is protected, but the complaint argued that the advertisement “besmirches the Slavic people and insults the world’s revered bread.”

The decision to fine the company for producing this advertisement was inappropriate. Far from protecting consumers, the decision may have been an emotional reaction, or the result of opaque lobbying. The controversial phrase itself is intended as a non-sequitur and does not include any offensive or even ambiguous words. It is not possible to infer any sort of meaning, let alone offence from such a nonsensical statement.

The second problem is that the Veterans’ Council cannot truly represent such groups as ‘the Slavic people’ and ‘the world.’ The controversies inherent in the offence legislation have already been discussed on this website but the subjectivity of the law gives authorities tremendous leeway, when they should be cautious and act only on the basis of measurable social impact. In this case, the extent of such impact is impossible to assess because of the nonsensical nature of the statement and the absence of any actual individual or group of people who would need the protection of state from the company.

Taken individually, this incident in Kostroma may be simply ridiculous. However, it continues the deplorable sequence of decisions based on laws covering such crimes of ‘offence of feelings’ – the Pussy Riot case being the best known. If you can be fined for offending bread, what next?

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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