There has been a lot of discussion regarding the ‘illicit chanting’ charge that UEFA applies in relation to ‘words’ uttered in football grounds by football fans. This is not a new phenomenon, but it generated enormous interest in December 2011 as a result of UEFA’s decision to charge Celtic FC for their fans’ ‘illicit chanting’ during a UEFA Europa League competition game.
It is not the author’s intention to examine the particular facts of the Celtic FC incident back in 2011. This was done extensively elsewhere. The author’s main aim is to question the lack of a definition of the ‘illicit chant’ charge. This approach would suggest that it is only when a working definition of what ‘illicit chanting’ can be produced that the application of the charge could determine the legality of the sanctions applied on the offence.
In doing so, the author also intends to examine whether the application of such charge follows the precepts of fairness and justice and the principles of proportionality and due process. To this extent, reference is also made to the necessity of the use of strict liability.
Illicit Chanting and the Law
It is well established law  that the regulatory framework of sporting governing bodies must be based clarity and certainty, as those who use must ensure that they understand their rights and obligations, as well as the normative environment in which they apply their trade.
In the premises, UEFA’s relevant Regulation is article 11.2(e) of UEFA’s Disciplinary Regulations 2011. This Regulation states that disciplinary measures may be taken against member clubs in case of inappropriate behaviour on the part of their supporters including ‘the use of gestures, words, objects or any other means to transmit any message that is not fit for a sports event, in particular if it of a political, offensive or provocative nature.’
Article 2 of UEFA’s Statutes sets out the legitimate aim pursued, which includes the promotion of football in Europe in a spirit of peace, understanding and fair play, without any discrimination on account of politics, gender, religion, race or any other reason. To that extent, the Statutes empower UEFA to implement any measures it deems appropriate to achieve the objectives and, subsequently, the legitimate aim pursued. In this instance, although not defined, the legitimate aim pursued is the separation of the sport of football from politics.
Given our argument that clarity and certainty must accompany any application of the relevant charge against a club, we are left to wonder as to the legal definition, if any, of the charge of ‘illicit chanting’. UEFA Regulations do not define what illicit chanting is; as a matter of fact, they do not even include such a term as part of the relevant and possible offences.
In the premises, one would have to question the validity of the term ‘illicit chanting’, as it is not prescribed in the relevant regulations. The literal interpretation of the word ‘illicit’ incorporates the explanation of something being ‘unlawful’. If ‘unlawful’ was what UEFA had in mind, we fail to discover – with respect – the word ‘illicit’ and/or ‘unlawful’ in the relevant Regulations. This poses a danger and it indeed creates unrest and a feeling of injustice amongst those who believe that without a clear definition of what is ‘illicit’, no such charge could ever acquire the necessary legal certainty.
We submit that this lack of a clear definition and understanding of what is ‘illicit’ offends against several well-established principles of law. The requirement to describe the offence and clearly define the sanctions for such offence is essential and necessary, if the offender is to appreciate what the normative environment is and what behaviour he should follow .
Strict Liability & Proportionality
It is our respectful submission that UEFA cannot achieve the aim pursued without the application of strict liability rules. For the lay person, such a rule demonstrates its harsh nature, as it can be applied in a very arbitrary and capricious way . For us, it represents an anachronistic form of ‘panic law’ which does not take into consideration the good intentions of the club towards elimination of the problem.
The current jurisprudence of the Court of Arbitration for Sport clearly accepts that strict liability is a necessary ingredient towards achieving the legitimate aim pursued . There is no doubt in our minds that the rule does not leave any room for manoeuvre and that the member associations and the clubs have to bear strict liability for the actions of their supporters, even if the clubs are not at fault themselves. The application of such a rule, therefore, is not primarily aimed at prevention and deterrence, but rather on curing the symptoms.
UEFA could argue that without strict liability rules, it would never be able to sanction the perpetrators. We understand and accept this submission, as we understand the rationale that the fans are considered to be members of the club and hence, by imposing fines on the club itself it is hoped that the fans (as members of the club) would be discouraged from continuing with the same behaviour. However, we find ourselves at pains to accept such a contention would work in practice. The fact that inappropriate chanting occurs regardless of the fines imposed on the club is indicative of a failing effort, though not in its entirety, as it may be true that the existence of such liability reduces the amount of times such conduct would occur if it were not for the existing penalties. Therefore, is a strict liability approach reasonable? What measures are clubs expected to take and what measures can they reasonably pursue?
We are of the view that when such conduct does occur, the actions of the club in discouraging such behaviour should serve as the primary basis for valid defence before being faulted and that the perpetrators themselves, in these situations, should carry the full consequence of their own actions. A reason for this view is that there are stakeholders involved (sponsors, players and fans themselves) whose interests in the club and game need be protected. When the club itself is fined, it renders the club as being at fault in the occurrence of such behaviour and if such behaviour remains rampant regardless of the consequences imposed on the club, the economic business of the club itself may be adversely affected.
We submit that the application of sanctions may be unreasonable, depending on the analysis of all relevant facts and the surrounding circumstances of each case. In addition, if proportionality is to be interpreted in the light of reasonableness  , it is submitted that the sanction imposed for the benefit of the legitimate aim pursued must also take into consideration the severity and the impact of such sanction on the defendant. In the long term, such a sanction may affect the club in many ways. When there are other sanctions available – such as a warning, or a reprimand, or a suspension of the sentence or, perhaps, a combination of all – a Tribunal would have no difficulty in identifying the governing body’s rather improper diversion  from the reasonable sanctions available to it.
We conclude, therefore, that the most appropriate response to the problem of unlawful chanting in football grounds is to identify the roots of the problem, eliminate them and prevent from appearing again, rather than cure the symptoms by imposing fines and bans.
Overall, it is our view that the football authorities must first clearly define what illicit chanting is and to include, where appropriate, a clear and unequivocal instruction that songs that glorify terror are to be considered ‘unacceptable behaviour’ or ‘offensive behaviour. ’ In addition, they must also be very specific as to what behaviour is to be considered ‘unacceptable’ and ‘offensive’; otherwise the result would be further added confusion and, in this instance, all the fines and bans in the world would fail to address the problem.
Eventually, the problem will be eradicated only with education and co-operation between the stakeholders. We conclude, therefore, that attention must be paid on the element of prevention through education and co-operation and that when sanctions are to be applied, UEFA must take into consideration the previous behaviour and the culpability of the club, its attempt to eliminate the problem – if any – and the financial repercussions that follow the sanction and are likely to affect the club in the long term. Consequently, the strict liability rules must be scrapped as they are anachronistic, arbitrary and capricious and they do not correspond to the precepts of fairness and justice that are so necessary in this area of sports law.
Dr. Gregory Ioannidis is an Advocate and Sports Lawyer, specialising in litigation and arbitration before the Court of Arbitration for Sport [CAS] in Lausanne, Switzerland. He is a registered lawyer with The FA and a Senior Lecturer in Law at SheffieldHallamUniversity.
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The present article is part of a wider publication, which was first published in the World Sports Law Report in February 2011.