GENEVA – A Nazi salute isn't illegal racial discrimination provided it's intended as a personal statement, Switzerland's top court ruled Wednesday.
The Federal Tribunal's ruling, titled "Hitler salute in public not always punishable," said the gesture is a crime only if someone is using it to try to spread racist ideology to others, not simply declaring one's own conviction.
The ruling by the Lausanne-based court overturned a lower court's conviction last year of a man who was charged with racial discrimination after he took part in an August 2010 demonstration with 150 participants.
The demonstration was held a week after the Swiss National Day on the famous Ruetli Meadow above Lake Lucerne where, according to legend, the modern Swiss Confederation was born in 1291.
The court said the man substituted the Swiss oath with a 20-second Nazi salute. But it said the gesture is only punishable if it's being used to spread, advertise or propagate racist ideology with the intention of influencing others.
The gesture is a criminal offense in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. A Swiss anti-racism law in 1995 forbids racist symbols to be displayed to promote racist ideologies.
For more than a decade, the Swiss have grappled with right-wing extremists disrupting Swiss National Day celebrations on Ruetli with Nazi symbols.
The August 2010 incident occurred two months after the Swiss Federal Council of seven ministers, including the president, decided not to ban the Nazi salute and swastika symbol in Switzerland. A federal anti-racism commission called that a bad decision that would have "serious consequences."
In another ruling on racial issues, the court said earlier this year that calling someone "foreign swine" or "filthy asylum seeker" may be insulting, but because the expressions are widely used insults in the German language, they don't constitute racist attacks.