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On August 4, 2010, the Public Prosecutor for Copenhagen charged International Free Press Society (IFPS) president Lars Hedegaard with racism. The IFPS describes itself as an organization “exclusively devoted to defending the right of free expression.”
The basis for Hedegaard’s prosecution was an interview from December 2009 in which he made controversial statements about Islam. These assertions included critiques of what Hedegaard saw as Islam’s permissiveness regarding child abuse and bearing false witness, as well as Islam’s general intolerance concerning apostacism and critical speech. Snaphanen, a Danish blog, published the original interview, and Hedegaard has since clarified some of his remarks.
Hedegaard’s statements earned him a hate speech charge under Danish law. While Denmark’s constitution ostensibly protects freedom of expression and forbids censorship (see Section 77), the Criminal code provides that “expressing and spreading racial hatred” is a criminal offense punishable with up to two years imprisonment. (Article 266b)
Indeed, notwithstanding Section 77, article 266b has already been deployed against defendants who, like Hedegaard, dare to criticize Islam. On June 16, 2010, the Danish parliament voted to strip a lawmaker of immunity so that he could face charges over anti-Muslim comments. The politician, Jesper Langballe, is a veteran member of the Danish People’s Party (PPD) and a crucial ally of the center-right government. In January 2010, he penned a newspaper column discussing the status of women in Islam and the “Islamisation of Europe.” Included was the statement that “Muslims kill their daughters over crimes of honour and turn a blind eye while they are raped by their uncles.” He is currently awaiting trial for violating Article 266b—the same hate speech statute that will likely be applied to Hedegaard.
The decision to charge Hedegaard elicited a number of immediate reactions—two of which merit mention. First, Danish writer and “integration consultant” Mohammad Rafiq enthusiastically endorsed the prosecution calling it a “victory for integration.” This is no surprise. Rafiq has previously attempted to silence Hedegaard by suing him for libel. Ironically, by applauding the de-facto silencing of an activist, Rafik reinforces Hedegaard’s point that Islam seeks to silence its critics.
By contrast, a day after Hedegaard was charged, Justice Minister Lars Barfoed announced that Denmark’s hate speech and blasphemy laws should be reexamined. The Copenhagen Post explains that Barfoed is “preparing the ground for changes to laws criminalising racist and blasphemous speech on concerns they could be misused as political instruments to restrict free speech.”
Barfoed is right to be concerned. If his effort is successful, it will be not only a victory for free speech in Denmark, but a bold example for the rest of Europe.
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