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Hem / 2012 / Towards a Better Understanding of Freedom of Speech, part I

Towards a Better Understanding of Freedom of Speech, part I

Yttrandefriheten är en av de fundamentala mänskliga rättigheter som demokratiska stater värderar högt. Men när högljudda intressegrupper vill garanteras rätten att inte bli förolämpade, sätts denna grundläggande rättighet ur spel. Yttrandefrihet har förvandlats till ”hörandefrihet” – rätten att slippa höra något som krockar med de egna värderingarna.

Detta är ett allvarligt hot mot demokratin, menar Mats Tunehag i denna engelska essä, först publicerad i boken Exiting a Dead End Road (Kairos Publications, 2010). Första delen publiceras här:




Hear no evil

Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil - an attitude not very compatible with the fundamental right of freedom of speech. (Foto: Frank "Fg2" Gualtieri)

Should the press be prohibited from publishing cartoons that may be offensive to Muslims? Should shop keepers refrain from saying “Merry Christmas”? Is it hate speech to express that practiced homosexuality is a sin according to the Bible? Is there a shift from freedom of expression towards a freedom from hearing or seeing things we don’t like? If so, democracy is in danger.

In October 2007 an advertisement in theStockholmunderground caused a national debate. The advertisement, sponsored by the Swedish Evangelical Alliance, promoted keeping the legal definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman. The ad simply said: “mum, dad, kids”.

Prominent politicians called for a ban of such messages. They argued that the ad could be perceived as offensive to people who are single, divorced or gay. Some even labeled it “hate speech”.

Fatwas, riots and boycotts

The Mohammed cartoons published in the newspaper Jyllandsposten inDenmarkclearly show that freedom of speech is an issue with global ramifications. Throughout the world Muslims started riots, imams issued fatwas, and there were boycotts and international diplomatic hard talk. There were demands, explicit and implicit, that freedom of speech/press should be restricted.

Pastor Daniel Scot had to fleePakistanbecause he was accused of blaspheming Islam, but ended up being charged with offending Muslims and Islam in democratic “Christian” Australia. There he made a comparative analysis of Islam and Christianity in a seminar in a church.

For this Pastor Scot faced fines and jail time for refusing to publicly recant his religious stance. His case was processed in the Australian court systems for over five years.

Legislative changes

Eventually, in late June 2007, the Muslim Council inVictoria,Australiaagreed to drop the charges against Pastor Scot. Three Australian states have laws which, in the name of tolerance, do not tolerate criticism – even perceived criticism – of Islam.

There are an increasing number of cases related to freedom of speech, cases which are being discussed in media and / or tried in courts of law. There are also legislative changes with more countries introducing or changing so called hate speech laws – further restricting the right to free speech.

In a globalised world, where laws are increasingly internationalized, we need to better understand various trends and pitfalls which may impact us all.


Freedom of speech is foundational and essential for other freedoms and rights. Without it we have neither freedom of the press, nor any rights to open political debate, nor freedom to manifest religious beliefs, nor freedom of expression in art and music, et cetera.

While advocating freedom of speech, one must recognize the need for limitations. Absolute general freedom is anarchy; absolute freedom of speech can have undesirable consequences.

Freedoms and rights need to be defined and operate within a particular framework, which is related to both ethical and legal systems.

There are always disagreements

There are some common legal limitations to freedom of speech. You cannot instigate imminent violence nor convey state or military secrets and plead that you are exercising freedom of speech. There are also some limitations related to libel and slander against individuals.

The right and freedom to express one’s views and opinions in writing, speech, and art inevitably means that others may differ or even take offense. But that is the nature of freedom of speech. One cannot guarantee that no-one will ever be offended by a message, political, religious, or otherwise.

One may say that Mohammed is the last prophet, another may disagree. Some will assert that Jesus is God and others may find that stupid or even offensive.

Some may argue for homosexual marriages and others for limited abortion rights. But all these things are foundational for a functional democracy, which is based on individuals’ right to express and convey various and differing opinions.

Worrying shift of trends

Freedom of speech puts the emphasis on the speaker and what is said; the right to say basically anything, even things that are not true (for instance, that the earth is flat).

A worrying trend is the shift toward the hearer and to what is being heard or how things are perceived, including the possibility that an individual or group may feel hurt or offended by what has been expressed. This is a move from the objective (what was expressed) to the subjective (how was it received, perceived). This is contrary to fundamental Rule of Law principles.

One can see this tendency in both media and in legislation in many parts of the world, often relating to Muslims and those engaging in homosexual conduct.


  • Glasgow, 2006: A Member of the Scottish Parliament asked Strathclyde Police to investigate remarks made by the Roman Catholic Archbishop ofGlasgow. The Archbishop had defended the institution of marriage and criticized civil partnerships in a church service.
  • In November 2003 the Bishop of Chester, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Peter Forster, was investigated by Cheshire Constabulary after he told his local newspaper that some homosexuals re-orientated to heterosexuality with the help of therapy.
  • In 2002, Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn was assassinated for his views on Islam and Muslim immigration.
  • In 2004, Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh was stabbed to death for producing a movie that criticized Islam.
  • In 2006, former Dutch lawmaker Ayaan Hirsi Ali was forced to flee the country after criticizing the mistreatment of women in Islamic societies.
  • InItaly, the journalist and author Oriana Fallaci was taken to court for writing that Islam “brings hate instead of love and slavery instead of freedom.”
  • InFrance, novelist Michel Houellebecq was taken to court for calling Islam “the stupidest religion.” He was acquitted in October 2002.
  • In Nottingham (Britain), theGreenwoodPrimary Schoolcancelled a Christmas nativity play because it interfered with the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha.
  • In Scarborough, theYorkshireCoastCollegeremoved the words Christmas and Easter from their calendar so as not to offend Muslims.
  • InGlasgow, a Christian radio show host was fired after a debate between a Muslim and a Christian on whether Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life.”
  • InEast London, the Tower Hamlets town council renamed a staff Christmas party a “festive meal” so as not to offend Muslims.
  • In 2009 Christian hotel owners inLiverpoolwere arrested and prosecuted for expressing an opinion about Islam in a conversation about religion. Although they eventually were acquitted, the case was an economic disaster for the couple who were forced to sell the hotel.
  • In the spring of2010 amiddle-aged preacher inWokington,CumbriainEnglandwas recently arrested for having “caused distress” among listeners. He had stated that according to the Bible drunkenness and homosexuality are wrong.
  • In 2010 both Swedish and American television did not dare to broadcast an episode ofSouthParkwhere there are references to Islam, arguing that it was dangerous – one might be threatened or killed.
  • Also in2010 agroup inMiami,Floridahad ads on buses promoting religious freedom and offering to help those who wish to leave Islam. The bus company quickly took them down because they did not want to “violate Islam”.
  • InDenmark, 55% of the Muslims think criticizing religion should be forbidden and 64% support curtailing freedom of speech.



The above examples indicate dangerous shifts when it comes to freedom of speech. Put briefly:

from freedom of speech to freedom from hearing

from speaker to hearer

from “instigating violence” to “I was offended or hurt”

from objective to subjective criterias / laws

The emphasis is now on the hearer, not the speaker. It is a move from the objective (what was expressed) to the subjective (how was it received, perceived). A common limitation of freedom of speech used to be instigating violence and threats, now certain groups mustn’t feel hurt or offended.

Difference between etiquette and law

It needs to be stated again: Free speech is absolutely essential since other democratic freedoms hinge upon free speech (such as religious freedom, freedom of press, free political debate). Restrictions on free speech are attacks on the very foundation of democracy.

The losers will in the end be everyone, including Muslims and people engaging in homosexual practice. It is of no virtue to intentionally offend others, but we must distinguish between etiquette and law, what are good manners and what is accommodated by free speech.

A flawed resolution

Another example of a worrying and dangerous shift: The Islamic Conference, consisting of 57 Muslim countries, proposed a resolution that was passed by the UN Human Rights Council in March2007 inGenevarelating to the Mohammed cartoons.

The resolution talks about vilification and defamation, but is quite different from libel and slander legislation in Rule of Law societies. There are several major flaws in the resolution:

Firstly, it refers primarily to Islam and Muslims.

Secondly, it makes freedom of speech content based.

Thirdly, it is a major paradigm shift from individual freedoms and rights to protection of a group and their supposed “right” to not be offended.

Fourthly, it presupposes that truth about religious issues can and should be established in courts of law. (cf. Inquisition)

“This resolution poses a dire threat to the rights of individuals – both Muslims and non-Muslims alike – to discover and live out their religious beliefs without fear of prosecution. It is imperative that the international community rise up to oppose the UN’s endorsement of antiblasphemy laws, and expose these resolutions for what they really are: legal justifications for undermining the freedoms of religion and expression, and institutionalized intolerance against religious minorities.” (Tina Ramirez, Congressional Fellow for Rep. Trent Franks, USA)

Mats Tunehag

Note: Part II will be published in Liv&Rätt the 2nd of April 2012.



Om Mats Tunehag

Mats Tunehag är föreläsare och skribent med hela världen som arbetsfält. Global talesman när det gäller religionsfrihet för World Evangelical Alliance och medlem av Global Council of Advocates International.