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Bangor Daily News, Maine, USA, 26 April 1978
Birching on the buttocks ruled 'degrading' practice
STRASBOURG, France (AP) -- Constables on the Isle of Man must stop birching unruly youths on their naked buttocks regardless of how effective a punishment it may have been, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Tuesday.
The centuries-old practice has in modern times become "degrading punishment," the Court said in a decision at its headquarters here.
The court is the top judicial authority for the European Convention of Human Rights signed in 1950. Ratification of the convention binds the 20 member states to enforce the court's rulings. All members but Portugal have ratified.
The ruling climaxed six years of litigation started by a 15-year-old schoolboy who was whipped with a 40-inch birch rod for beating up an older student who reported him for sneaking beer into school.
"The court finds that the applicant was subjected to a punishment in which the element of humiliation attained the level inherent in the notion of degrading punishment," the ruling said.
"The indignity of having the punishment administered over the bare posterior aggravated to some extent the degrading character of the applicant's punishment but it was not the only or determining factor."
Situated in the Irish Sea between England and Ireland, the Isle of Man falls under the legal sway of the British Home Office. But Britain traditionally has allowed the island to govern itself under laws voted by its 1,000-year-old parliament.
Authorities on the fiercely independent island have defended their use of birching to deter juvenile crimes of violence. Last year 31,000 of the island's 45,000 voters signed a petition to keep the practice, and officials have offered to allow offenders to wear "ordinary cloth trousers" while being whipped.
The court agreed with the island's attorney general, John W. Corrin, that birching was neither torture nor inhuman punishment as proscribed by the Human Rights Convention. But it dismissed his argument that it was not degrading and it refused to accept his offer to clothe the boys during the whippings.
Britain was ordered to make sure the island revises its ways. Birching has been discontinued for "a great number of years" in Britain, according to a Home Office spokesman. But the Department of Education says corporal punishment is still practiced in some schools.
In the United States, the Supreme Court ruled on April 19, 1977, in a Miami, Fla., paddling case that students have no constitutional protection against corporal punishment from teachers or administrators. But, the court said, a student who was subject to unfair or excessive punishment could file criminal charges against the punisher.
Birching, as it is practiced on the Isle of Man, is tightly controlled with a medical examination before and after. Sentences range from three to 12 whacks, according to the offense, with a four-foot cane for children under 14 and a 40-inch birch rod for youths 14 to 21.
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