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'Bonkers', 'a strong message': split over €10,000 fine for offensive meme

A contentious court decision to fine a man €10,000 for posting an offensive post on Facebook that denigrated people with Down Syndrome was welcomed by some but described by others as setting a dangerous precedent.

Luke Mihalic, 29, was found guilty of misusing computer and telecommunications equipment for posting a meme of an unidentified person with Down Syndrome, with the caption stating: "Website is Down", "Oooh, me too!"

Magistrate Yana Micallef Stafrace ruled: "By no stretch of the imagination can one say that this is artistic expression, satirical, comic or cultural. The court considers the meme [to be] a threat to those people with Down Syndrome that are integrated into a society that is meant to be inclusive." 

Down Syndrome Association Malta hailed the decision for "sending a strong message that no disabled person should be ridiculed".

Inclusion Minister Julia Farrugia Portelli said: "Justice is finally served. Nobody, and no persons with a disability should be mocked."

But critics said that the courts could be setting a dangerous precedent about the limits of free speech. 

Taking to Facebook, actor, author and comedian Malcolm Galea said the meme was in bad taste and offensive but added that the justice system fining the man €10,000 is "very problematic".

"If someone makes a comment in bad taste, they should face consequences from society, not from the state. This case can set a dangerous precedent," he said. 

Lawyer Michael Zammit Maempel described the judgment as "completely bonkers".

"Posting memes that ridicule people with Down's Syndrome (or anything else for that matter) may be distasteful in the extreme, but we all have a fundamental right to express distasteful, shocking and offensive content," he said on X, formerly Twitter. 

He suggested that the accused should appeal the judgment and take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

But Joeanna Xerri, president of Down Syndrome Association Malta, felt the meme was a form of "hate speech". 

"We're grateful there was a punishment; it's true that there is a right to free speech, but that does not give you the liberty to offend people," she said. 

The NGO thanked the Commission for the Rights of Persons with Disability and Oliver Scicluna, who was commissioner at the time. 

Scicluna had reported the meme to the police after he received the post from people who felt offended. 

He said that making fun of people with Down Syndrome is always in "bad taste". 

Because the condition is easily recognisable, people with Down Syndrome have always been "stigmatised" and "objectified," Scicluna said.  

"I have a disability myself, but if someone makes a joke about me, I can answer back. People with Down Syndrome might not realise they are being made fun of," he said.  

The former commissioner for the rights of people with a disability, however, said he did not want to go into the merits of the judgment. He said there is a judicial process and that the individual can appeal the judgment. 

When contacted, criminal lawyer Franco Debono also did not want to go into the details of the case, but said there was a "huge hole and defect" in the Maltese justice system because of a lack of uniformity in judgments. 

A system that cannot guarantee uniformity of judgments has a very serious problem, Debono said. 

"As long as we don’t have a supreme court or a Corte di Cassazione (similar to the supreme court in Italy) our judicial system will have a huge hole and defect," he said. 

Different judges can all make correct and well-reasoned judgments within the parameters of the law, but those judgments could be different, he said.