Freedom of expression, including freedom of artistic expression, is protected under article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and section 77 of the Constitutional Act of Denmark. Can these provisions be used to justify an employee vandalising their employer's property as part of an artistic event?

Recently, this issue was brought into question when a lecturer at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts was invited to give a talk on the academy's colonial past and its aftermath. Prior to the presentation, the lecturer had invited a number of students for a meeting about the possibility of organising an event during the lecture, which would involve the removal of a bust of Frederick V (the king of Denmark and Norway from 1746 to 1766) from its place in the academy's assembly hall.

After the lecture, the lecturer opened the door to the assembly hall with her access card, removed the bust, carried it to the Copenhagen harbour with the students and pushed it into the harbour basin. Divers later retrieved the bust, which had sustained some damage.

As a result of the matter, the lecturer received a summary dismissal on the grounds that by committing acts of vandalism as part of the study programme, she had failed to show the degree of responsibility, objectivity and professionalism that was expected of employees.

Was this dismissal justified? During the legal proceedings, the lecturer's trade union submitted that the incident was an artistic event protected under article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and section 77 of the Constitutional Act on Denmark, because the lecturer's aim was to rematerialise the bust. "Rematerialisation" is an artistic process where material takes a new form and, thus, obtains new meaning. In this case, the bust was rematerialised to create a dialogue about the academy's colonial past. In this context, the lecturer believed that the bust symbolised the academy's significant role in the colonial history of Denmark, as the bust was placed at the back of the assembly hall (at the centre of the academy) and surveyed the room "like a plantation owner".

The industrial arbitration tribunal decided, however, that the summary dismissal was justified. The umpire stated that neither the above legislation nor the freedom of expression of public sector employees could justify public sector employees expressing themselves by destroying the property of others. Therefore, a public sector employee who removes and destroys publicly owned objects of significant value from the workplace can be dismissed summarily.

In this case, the tribunal's decision was predictable given that employees cannot vandalise the employer's property, irrespective of whether such acts are reasoned to be grounded in the freedom of expression. Further, by vandalising the employer's property, employees may also incur liability for damages and punishment under the Criminal Code.

For further information on this topic please contact Søren Skjerbek​ at Norrbom Vinding by telephone (+43 35 25 3940) or email ([email protected]). The Norrbom Vinding website can be accessed at