Julia Landowska never thought of herself as a crusader for free speech until she got a $15 fine for swearing in public during a protest against Poland’s strict abortion laws.
Ms. Landowska is a 23-year-old medical student in Gdansk and rarely paid much attention to politics until October, 2020, when Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal issued a ruling that banned access to abortion in all circumstances except cases of sexual assault or incest or if the woman’s life or health were at risk. The decision prompted widespread demonstrations against the populist Law and Justice party, or PiS, which has been accused of politicizing the tribunal.
“As a young Polish woman and a future doctor, probably a gynecologist, I was afraid of the future because of what our government was planning for us,” Ms. Landowska recalled in an interview. “Therefore, I decided to take matters into my own hands by going on the streets alongside fellow women.”
When the ruling took effect in January, 2021, she joined a small protest outside the local PiS office. The group began shouting “Jebać PiS!,” or “Fuck PiS!,” which has become a rallying cry for pro-choice activists and PiS opponents.
Six months later, Ms. Landowska received a notice from the police saying she was being charged for swearing in public. She went to a station to argue her case, but a few weeks later was told that a court had imposed a 50 zloty fine, or $15.57.
She challenged the ruling in court with the help of Michal Romanowski, a prominent Warsaw lawyer who took the case on a pro bono basis. “Me and my lawyer, we just knew that this case is about so much more than 50 zloty,” Ms. Landowska said. “It’s about fighting for the rights of people to criticize the government.”
The case has dragged on for two years, even though the prosecution’s two witnesses, a pair of police officers assigned to crowd control that day, testified that they could not recall Ms. Landowska or what she said.
Ms. Landowska has readily admitted that she swore but urged the court to consider the context. Mr. Romanowski has argued that while swearing is commonplace in Poland, including in rap music, political debate and during sports events, the only people who seem to get fined are those who criticize the government.
The prolonged legal battle has taken its toll. “This is my first time in the court, ever,” Ms. Landowska said. “It takes so much time and emotions, it’s really stressful for me.”
Her case is not unique. The European Union has clashed with the Polish government for years over its reforms to the judiciary and the media. The government has also been condemned by the European Parliament for using SLAPP laws – strategic lawsuits against public participation – to stifle dissent.
Police crackdowns have become worryingly common. Polish writer Jakub Żulczyk faced up to three years in prison for calling President Andrzej Duda, a PiS member, an idiot on Twitter in 2020. A district court dismissed the case earlier this year, but prosecutors appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court, which ultimately upheld the lower court’s decision.
And in August, a 65-year-old man was fined 50 zloty after he showed up at a PiS rally wearing a T-shirt with “Jebać PiS” written across the front.
On Friday a judge finally ruled on Ms. Landowska’s case. Judge Jakub Zank upheld the conviction but dropped the fine. He agreed that there were special circumstances to consider and that she swore out of despair and anger. But he said “Jebać PiS” was “of an indecent nature and the circumstances in which it was uttered do not alter this.” He added that the slogan should not be used “to present judgments on the functioning of public institutions regardless of professed views.”
“The court is not aware of a social norm for which this kind of vocabulary would be widely approved in the public space,” the judge said.
Ms. Landowska and her lawyer plan to appeal the decision all the way to the European Court of Human Rights if necessary. “I want to keep fighting because I know why I am fighting and how important it is,” she said Friday. “I believe it can have a much bigger impact on other cases like this in Poland.”
Poland is in the midst of an election campaign, and abortion is a main issue. Polls indicate a tight race between Law and Justice and an opposition coalition known as Civic Platform. Neither side is expected to win enough votes on Oct. 15 to form a government. To stay in power, Law and Justice may have to rely on support from a small far-right party, Konfederacja, which wants to ban abortion in nearly all circumstances.
Ms. Landowska is hoping her case will draw attention to issues such as abortion, free speech and human rights. “My whole case is strictly a political case,” she said, adding that she has no plans to stop protesting or shouting “Jebać PiS.”