The public signs in Lithuania should be written in the country’s official language (according to article 17 of the state language Act); however, to excise stamps on the goods subjected to excise duty (such as cigarettes and alcohol), car licence plates and proper names of companies this Act does not apply. That is how Vilnius District Administrative Court decided in its ruling, dissmising the plaint filed to the State Language Inspectorate by the European Foundation of Human Rights.
In its plaint, EFHR pointed out that the rules of creating and spelling of legal entities’ proper names, registered licence plates, and excise stamps should be the same as the ones applied to the spelling of names and surnames. It means that those names should also be written exclusively in the country’s official language with the use of the letters and symbols of the Lithuanian alphabet.
However, the State Enterprise “Regitra” claimed that “the motor vehicles registered in the Republic of Lithuania take part in international road traffic, therefore state licence plates should be clear, legible and comprehensible to every participant of international road traffic, as well as to the supervising police officers; whereas putting Lithuanian symbols on the plates that may contain diacritical marks would considerably limit those abilities”. This explanation concerning the marking of state licence plates is far from logical. It is not just cars that participate in international road traffic, but also people. It is people after all who travel and settle abroad, often precisely where their name and surname would locally have a different spelling. Often a person who goes abroad is forced to prove their identity because the state forbids its citizens from using letters from the Latin alphabet. Meanwhile, the proper names of companies (both Lithuanian and non-Lithuanian), car license plates, tourist inscriptions and excise stamps on the goods subjected to excise duty (such as cigarettes and alcohol) can be formed from letters that do not exist in the Lithuanian alphabet. This means that the Court agrees with the statement that using non-Lithuanian letters does not pose a threat to the Lithuanian language.
Apart from that, citing the regulations confirmed by the Managing Director of “Regitra” concerning the ordering and distribution of car licence plates (Vardinių valstybinio numerio ženklų užsakymo ir išdavimo taisyklės), the Court stated that the numbers on car licence plates are comprised of symbols and signs that, according to the Court, do not constitute public signs. That is why the state language Act cannot be applied in this case. The EFHR can see a lack of any argumentation supporting the Court’s statement that symbols and signs forming a word on a car licence plate are not a public sign. Curiously enough for the price of 5000 LT (just under 1.500 EUR) it is legally possible to buy a personalized licence plate that forms actual words, not just symbols. Is it really the case that such a licence plate saying: “Vilnius”, “sexy”, “Ulcer” etc. does not reduce the efficiency of public bodies?
The proper name of a legal person who has connections with a foreign legal person or other organization can be formed by analogy to that foreign legal person or organization. Furthermore, company names and words placed on logos or services are not translated into other languages (e.g. “Computerland”, “United Colors of Benetton” etc.) in order to avoid that company losing its original identity. This issue brings to mind the Court’s conclusion that there is no need to retain one’s identity, as their name and surname will be spelled differently in different countries. Therefore, being in a foreign country, one will still be forced to prove to officials and institutions that they are one and the same person (despite different spellings of the same name). It seems like the legislative institution interprets the names and surnames of the citizens according to its beliefs and whims.
The Court stated that the numbers of car licence plates as well as excise stamps are not public signs but merely signs formed with a sequence of numbers, letters or signs. Moreover, the rules concerning forming names for companies and organizations are only applied to forming Lithuanian names; therefore they cannot be applied to the names formed from foreign words as they do not mean anything as words. This interpretation is astonishing because the Constitutional Court had explicitly stated in its rulings in 1999 and 2009 that using non-Lithuanian letters violates the functionality of the Lithuanian state.
In the EFHR’s opinion such an interpretation of the law is neither comprehensive nor exhaustive; that is why, the EFHR is going to appeal to a higher court. The request for investigating if this regulation is in conformity to the Constitution which was put forward by the EFHR was rejected. By conducting this kind of cases the Foundation once again unveils the hypocrisy of the state apparatus concerning the spelling of non-Lithuanian letters. Depending on the state’s whims, non-Lithuanian letters either threaten Lithuanian statehood or not.
Information on further developments will be provided.
Translated by Katarzyna Rakalska within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.