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, entitled "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, an extension of the right arm in the air with a straightened hand that's usually accompanied by the utterance "Heil Hitler!"
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 "third parties."
The gesture is a criminal offense in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic.
An anti-racism law in 1995 forbids the public display and dissemination of racist symbols, but only in cases when they are used to promote racist ideologies.
For more than a decade the Swiss have grappled with right-wing extremists disrupting Swiss National Day celebrations on the Ruetli, where they have openly displayed Nazi symbols.
The Swiss were shocked by a mass march on August 1, 2000 when a neo-Nazi mob booed and humiliated then-Finance Minister Kaspar Villiger during his speech on the Ruetli and, according to the anti-racism commission, then-Swiss President Adolf Ogi "had to apply for special protection during a national celebration, which was paid for privately."