Clifford Chance Helps Fight Anti-LGBT Stunt In Poland

By Michele Gorman | September 22, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

When Clifford Chance discovered this year that a Polish newspaper planned to distribute anti-gay stickers declaring “LGBT-free zone” with an upcoming edition, attorneys with the firm had only a few days to ask a court to hamper those plans.

But even with the time crunch, the pro bono team at Clifford Chance LLP never thought twice about diving in for the chance to represent the LGBT community and champion some of the values and issues the firm promotes.

Senior associate Sylwia Gregorczyk-Abram, who manages Clifford Chance’s pro bono practice, and Marcin Ciemiński, a partner in the Warsaw litigation and dispute resolution practice and supervisor of the firm’s pro bono practice in Warsaw.

“It’s very easy to put a pride flag out once a year and have a beautiful float in Mardi Gras, but that’s not moving the dial and it’s not changing the real experience of LGBT people in our firm, for our clients and across the world,” Tiernan Brady, Clifford Chance’s global director of inclusion, recently told Law360.

On July 18, the nationally distributed, pro-government newspaper Gazeta Polska announced its plans to attach stickers — which had a black “x” over a rainbow flag and text in Polish reading “LGBT-free zone” — to the July 24 issue.

While support for gay rights has grown in the largely Roman Catholic country, gay marriage is illegal and threats against the LGBT community continue to exist there. Ahead of a parliamentary election set for October, the nationalist Law and Justice government, or PiS, has ramped up its public opposition of gay rights.

Senior associate Sylwia Gregorczyk-Abram, who manages Clifford Chance’s pro bono practice and leads the Poland-based team of lawyers working on the case, said they took it on after receiving alarming calls from concerned Polish citizens — including journalists, film director Agnieszka Holland and Polish LGBT activist Bartosz Staszewski — urging the shop to take action.

On July 22, Clifford Chance, together with Polish attorney Michal Wawrykiewicz, filed that motion on Staszewski’s behalf.

As part of the filing, they demanded the Warsaw District Court block the distribution of the stickers, or — if the stickers had already been distributed when the court made its decision — asked for the withdrawal of the sticker from the market.

The stickers were distributed, but the court ruled the same day that Gazeta Polska had to immediately remove them from the market. The court said the publication of the stickers violated, among other personal rights, Staszewski’s dignity, sense of security and acceptance, and could fuel harassment and discrimination against the LGBT community, according to Clifford Chance.

“This first decision is a very important one,” said Marcin Ciemiński, a partner in the Warsaw litigation and dispute resolution practice and supervisor of the firm’s pro bono practice in Warsaw. “It’s immediately enforceable, and it is a very good sign for the future as well because at this stage the court decided that the claim is probable.”

Staszewski agreed. “Even if we are not [a] protected group in Polish law, this decision shows that we can be protected as such,” he said in an email to Law360.

The Constitution of the Republic of Poland says no one should be discriminated against for political, social or economic reasons, and Clifford Chance attorneys points out that this includes sexual orientation.

Still, among the 28 European Union member states, Poland ranks second to last when measured for equality for the gay rights community, according to Rainbow Europe, which annually reviews the status of European LGBTI people’s rights.

Staszewski said that participants of recent Pride parades in the Polish cities of Lublin and Bialystok “were hounded by hundreds of aggressive men who were dispersed by riot police firing tear gas.”

“Hate language is used against [us] on [a] daily basis in media owned by [the] state,” he said. “We are not [a] protected group in Polish law and our unions are not recognized by [the] state.”

While several retailers initially refused to sell the July 24 newspaper edition with the sticker, the Clifford Chance team hopes the court order deters other businesses that might be considering the promotion of any anti-LGBT message, according to Ciemiński.

“We think that the time has come to draw the line,” he said. “From that perspective, we think that this matter might have a huge impact on the future, and that’s why it’s so important.”

Included in the order was a two-week deadline for Clifford Chance to file a lawsuit against the newspaper’s publisher for infringing on Staszewski’s personal rights, Clifford Chance said.

The firm has since filed the full claim, but Gazeta Polska has challenged the injunction itself. The two sides are waiting on a decision from the Court of Appeal on that issue, the lawyers said.

The newspaper did not respond to Law360’s request for comment.

The case marks the latest in a series of pro bono projects that Clifford Chance has undertaken to protect LGBT rights. For example, the firm is involved in seeking to decriminalize homosexuality in Singapore and to remove gender from United Kingdom passports for those who don’t identify as male or female.

“We don’t just talk the talk, we walk the walk,” Brady said. “We’re a law firm. This is about justice. If we’re not good at that, who is?”

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

--Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.