Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Demonstrators hold up a placard reading 'My body my choice' in downtown Warsaw on June 14, 2023, as people protest Polish anti-abortion laws after the death of the pregnant woman.WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/Getty Images

It has taken three years, two guilty verdicts and a lot of frayed nerves, but a Polish court has finally thrown out the $16 fine Julia Landowska received for swearing during an anti-government rally in Gdansk.

Ms. Landowska, a 23-year-old medical student, was charged by the police in 2021 after she took part in a demonstration against new restrictions on abortion. At the time, women across Poland were protesting a decision by the country’s Constitutional Court that banned access to abortion in all circumstances except cases of sexual assault, incest or if the mother’s life or health were at risk.

The demonstration took place outside the Gdansk office of the Law and Justice party, or PiS, which was in power at the time. Ms. Landowska and several other protesters shouted, “Jebac PiS!,” or “Fuck PiS!,” which had become a rallying cry for pro-choice activists and PiS opponents.

A few months later she received a notice from the police informing her she’d been charged for swearing in public. A court of first appearance quickly found her guilty and imposed a 50 zloty ($16.70) fine.

She refused to pay and, together with her lawyer, prominent civil rights attorney Michal Romanowski, challenged the fine in court, arguing that the case was about free speech and the right to criticize the government.

Last September, a second judge struck down the fine but upheld the conviction. The judge ruled that shouting “Jebac PiS!” was indecent, regardless of the circumstances, and shouldn’t be used to “present judgments” on public institutions.

Ms. Landowska appealed to a higher court. She also filed a lawsuit at the European Court of Human Rights, alleging that Poland’s judicial system violated the European Convention on Human Rights because judges lacked impartiality.

“What is at stake here is freedom of speech, the right to criticize the authorities and – above all – the right to a court of law. That is, the right to have a citizen’s dispute with the authorities assessed by a judge who is independent of those authorities,” Mr. Romanowski wrote in the court filings.

Last week a district court judge in Poland threw out the conviction after a brief hearing.

“It was such a relief,” Ms. Landowska said in an interview. “It was always something that has been on my mind, that this case was still going on and that I wasn’t sure how it would end. So I am really, really relieved that it is finally over.”

The district court decision came three months after PiS was swept from power by a coalition of opposition parties under the leadership of Donald Tusk. PiS has been accused by the European Union and others of politicizing Poland’s judicial system during the party’s eight years in power. Mr. Tusk has vowed to undo the changes introduced by PiS and restore judicial independence.

Ms. Landowska said the ruling in her case could be a sign that the new government’s reforms are beginning to work. And she has dropped her case at the European Court of Human Rights.

“I think that the change of the government has had something to do with it, for sure, in that the judges aren’t so scared,” she said. Police officers will also likely feel less pressure to charge people who protest government policy, she added. “I believe that no matter who you are protesting against, you should be able to show your emotions in a peaceful way,” she said. “I hope that it will stay like this.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe