European Court of Human Rights Affirms Sweden's Right to Punish Speech Offenders

European Court of Human Rights Affirms Sweden’s Right to Punish Speech Offenders

February 9, 2012
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This Thursday, the ECHR delivered the verdict in a hate speech case that was appealed to it five years ago, back on 4 January 2007. In December of 2004, seven young men were distributing leaflets about homosexuality at high school Staffanskolan in the small Swedish town of Söderhamn. The message on these leaflets was critical of the way homosexuality was presented in Swedish education and called for a debate on the topic. To quote the portion of leaflet later charged to be hate speech: (My translation)

“Homo sex propaganda

Society has in a few decades turned around from a dismissal of homosexuality and other sexual perversions to an embracing of this deviating sexual inclination. Your anti-Swedish teacher knows very well that homosexuality has a morally destructive effect on the national body and will readily try to present it as something normal and good.

Point out to your teacher that there has been a law in Sweden that outlawed homosexuality, but which under the first half of the 20th century was revoked. Tell him that HIV and AIDS appeared early among the homosexuals and that their promiscuous lifestyle has been one of the main reasons that this modern plague has taken hold. Also tell him that it was because of this that the now repealed “sauna club law” was introduced to prevent the spread of this disease. Tell him that the homo sex lobby with its agencies is also attempting to dedramatize pedophilia and ask him if this sexual perversion should be legalized.”

What followed after the leaflet distribution was over were criminal investigations for all seven men present that day, and their subsequent prosecutions made their way to the Swedish Supreme Court, the courts alternating guilty sentences with acquittals in a peculiar manner; the district court even sentence two of the men to prison. After the Supreme Court had joined in on declaring them guilty, they began their journey to Strasbourg to have the verdict tried there. I cover the Swedish legal case in more depth in my book The Madhouse, yet what’s new now is that the ECHR has responded to their application – in an alarming way.

Though the European Convention on Human Rights contain an article (#10) affirming the right to free speech, the ECHR has now officially affirmed the right of member states to instead prosecute speech offenders. A press release was sent out on 9 February along with a factsheet on “hate speech,” wherein is listed a number of similar cases and the verdicts in them. It also clarified what is considered “hate speech” by the ECHR:

”The European Court of Human Rights has identified a number of forms of expression which are to be considered offensive and contrary to the Convention (including racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, aggressive nationalism and discrimination against minorities and immigrants).”

An interesting addition to the list is the ambiguous term “aggressive nationalism.” Just what is it? Is rooting for your own country and looking down on others to be considered “aggressive nationalism,” legal grounds for incarceration of the offender? This certainly is a dangerous development. But to return to the case at hand. The verdict can be read at the ECHR site here; to quote:

“In the case of Vejdeland and Others v. Sweden, the Court found that the applicants’ conviction for distributing leaflets insulting homosexuals did not breach the right to freedom of expression. In conjunction with this judgment a new factsheet on “hate speech” has been published.”

“The case concerned the applicants’ conviction in 2005 for distributing in an upper secondary school approximately 100 leaflets considered by the courts to be offensive to homosexuals.”

“According to the leaflets, homosexuality was a “deviant sexual proclivity”, had “a morally destructive effect” on society and was responsible for the development of HIV and AIDS. The leaflets further alleged that the “homosexual lobby” tried to play down paedophilia. These statements had constituted serious and prejudicial allegations, even if they had not been a direct call to hateful acts. The Court stressed that discrimination based on sexual orientation was as serious as discrimination based on “race, origin or colour.”

Hence the ECHR now affirms the right of member states to send people “insulting homosexuals” to prison for their speech. As you may recall, a number of years ago a Christian minister in Sweden – Åke Green – was initially convicted of “hate speech” for his sermon on homosexuality – more information about his case here. Back then, when the Supreme Court finally acquitted Green, the Justices referred to the aforementioned convention as granting the minister his right to preach the Bible, even though they considered him guilty under Swedish law. My own belief, however, is that the convention didn’t matter all that much, but that they rather bowed to international pressure, especially from American churches, pressure that had put the kingdom of Sweden under scrutiny. And now, that last lifeline of free speech is gone, with this Thursday’s verdict and press release.

Another “hate speech” trial that was recently held in Sweden was the Dan Park one I described here. Two weeks ago, on 26 January, the verdict in that case was delivered by Lund District Court, one declaring defendant Park guilty. Though one of the plaintiffs called for incarceration, broke street artist Park was instead sentenced to combined fines of 26,000 Swedish crowns, or about $4,000.

If you’re vacationing in Europe these days, remember not to talk too loud. Some court just might find what you say “hate speech” and send you to prison for it, with the ECHR’s blessing.

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Daniel Hammarberg

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