The Legend of Wooley Swamp

What ever happened to nuance? Jabberwocky is being spewed up by the left and right as they try to drag us into their Wonderlands. This blog charts a path out of this swamp of simple truths and false certainties. And from time to time, it'll be a place for more light-hearted musings.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Bigots Strengthen Free Speech in Sweden

Today, a case before the Supreme Court of Sweden, Högsta Domstolen (HD), which dealt with freedom of expression (and some may say religion) in connection to a hate crime charge, resulted in a decision to uphold and strengthen this indispensable principle:

"Sweden's highest court on Tuesday acquitted a Pentecostal pastor accused of hate speech for having denounced homosexuality as a "cancerous tumor" in a sermon. Åke Green's contentious sermon in 2003 was protected by freedom of speech and religion under the European Convention on Human Rights, the Supreme Court said in a 16-page ruling. Green, 64, became the first clergyman convicted under Sweden's hate crimes legislation, when a lower court found him guilty of inciting hatred against homosexuals. An appeals court overturned the ruling earlier this year, but Sweden's chief prosecutor appealed the acquittal to the Supreme Court."

Here´s what this was all about – it touched upon so many issues from hate crimes and freedom of speech and religion to the role of international law and transnational lobbying efforts - and why I agree with the Court´s decision to acquit a bigot. For me, this marks a change from the days in journalism school when I would chastise classmates for e.g. mentioning that some groups were more involved in crime than others. This would lead to hatred and misconceptions I would argue, and then issues clarion calls for self-censorship. All in the name of a good cause. Well, my zeal for combating hatred and racism has hardly weakened, but the means cannot entail curtailing freedom of speech. (Yes, here in Germany such bans exist, e.g. on Holocaust denial, but they are historically justified. It is symbolic.)

A little background:

With origins predating even the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Sweden has the one of oldest freedom of expression guarantees anywhere in the world. In 1766, a Swedish-speaking Finn one Anders Chydenius (he was no less than a Nordic James Madison or Adam Smith, who he supposedly influenced) penned the freedom of the press law that still stands today and is part of the Swedish Constitution, Grundlagen (passed in 1809, it is the second oldest constitution after the U.S. Constitution.)

Anders Chydenius, the Nordic James Madison

But the original Swedish law was not as wide-ranging as the 1st Amendment, nor does it encompass its religion principles, i.e. freedom from a state religion (Sweden still has one, sort of) or freedom of worship (this exists in Sweden). It has been complemented with a Freedom of Expression law (a latecomer in 1991!) that encompasses other freedoms than those related to the printed word. It is telling that the ruling in the Green case pointed to international law, namely the obligations placed upon Sweden by adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights, rather than a specific Swedish law. Indeed, the Chairman of HD Justice Johan Munck, said this about his own court’s ruling: “If we had adhered to the letter of the Swedish law, he would have been convicted.”

In a recent article on why Sweden still has a lot to learn from the U.S. on freedom of expression issues, Thomas von Vegesack wrote (in Swedish) :

“…while (this) freedom has continually been expanded in the U.S., it has often been undermined and questioned in Sweden. The U.S. Supreme Court acts as the guarantor. In Sweden, there is no equivalent protection…(quoting Geoffrey R. Stone on the U.S. situation) ‘During these past decades, taking into consideration the ever stronger constitutional protections for the spoken word, the authorities’ attempt to silence contrarians have become both weaker and more subtle.’ …I have not observed any signs of such developments in Sweden…this debate is so vibrant on the other side of the Atlantic. One might wish that we also debated these issues.” (my translation)

And while von Vegesack was writing about freedom of speech during times of war and crisis (unfavorably comparing Sweden during World War II to American reactions throughout history, I shall return to this comparison some other time. For now I'll say it's accurate.) perhaps he would see something positive about this current sordid case. Just how it will influence Swedish law itself remains to be seen. But a real debate seems to be in the making

OK, back to the Green case.
I have read Pastor Green’s sermon in its tedious and misguided entirety. It is extremely boring in fact. His positions are of classic fundamentalist caliber, e.g. only marriage between a man and a woman can be consummated, all else is ‘sin.’; what you do in privacy, homo- or heterosexual, IS the business of God; gay people cannot be Christians, homosexuality is the work of the Devil etc. Won’t bore you further with his interpretations, many are obviously quite un-Christian if you ask me, and most Christians would agree. But to get to the passage in question:

“The Bible relates and teaches about (sexual) abnormalities. These are a deep cancerous tumor in the body of society. The Lord knows that sexual twisted people will rape the animals. Not even the animals are spared man’s lust and the fire that is lit in a human being. Even this is possible.” (my translation)

This outburst followed a quote from the Bible, which I believe was about Sodom and Gomorrah. I suppose he was trying to embellish the point. In the context of the speech, it appears as an allegory. And the speech ends with a call for the ‘lost souls’ to return to his flock. “We shall not condemn. Jesus never shunned. Jesus never humiliated. He showed mercy.” Etc.
Inciting hatred? Hatred of Green himself perhaps; his congregation was probably asleep by the time he got to the controversial part. These zealots do NOT want to hate or kill, they want to proselytize. They listened to the closing call to prayer – if they woke up that is – more than the allegory that so many have ripped out of context. And as for proselytizing; they won’t have many takers. Trust me. It is the mark of the desperate to resort to this kind of rhetoric.

Returning to the international aspect of the trial, I want to bring attention to an aspect that neither the Swedish nor the foreign media seems to really have registered. The blog of a seemingly legendary and very pious businessman, Pat Sullivan, alerted me to this (you gotta love the description of the trial: The case should have been called Sweden v.The Bible. It was like a cross between George Orwell’s 1984 and a Stalin Soviet show trial.) Please.

It turns out that one of Green’s advisors was Benjamin Bull, chief counsel for an American lobbying group, the Alliance Defence Fund (ADF.) This is one wacky group – just check out their affiliates in the world of intelligent design and other madness. They were definitely involved for the freedom of religion sideshow. As such it’s no surprise that they teamed up with Green. This was clearly a case where I had to apply the Voltairian logic of “I do not agree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it” (these weren’t actually his words it turns out) and "Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too." And now I’m in cahoots with the ADF.

Sometimes when you see who agrees with you, you recoil in horror. This would be one of those cases. But then you wake up and realize that they are appropriating high principles, e.g. liberty and patriotism, in order to push their extremist agenda. So if you abandon the principles because others abuse them then you wind up furthering that agenda. A concrete example: For years, many Swedes refused to fly their flag because right-wing fanatics used it. It reached the point where the average citizen who hoisted the blue and yellow banner felt queasy about doing so and was suspected of being some kind of closet Nazi. Hello?

Speaking to the charge that ‘them pesky foreigners’ shouldn’t be involved in the Swedish judicial process, this holds no water here. The man was an advisor and I’m sure even Justice Scalia would not object to a Swede playing a similar role during a case before his Court. The problem in a U.S. case would be if that hypothetical counsel claimed that European law had some insight to offer. In the Green case, international law obviously took precedence plus Bull seems to have acted as some kind of ‘moral crutch.’ Still, I wonder how the nutters got involved. Merits a little investigation…

Just a few words on the reactions in Sweden:

It was odd to hear the Chairman of the Court answering (very ignorant) questions from a reporter on the radio. This would never happen in the US – especially not six hours after the trial – a Justice, let alone the Chief Justice, commenting on the case. Even more bizarre was the reporter’s aggressive questioning that should have been addressed to a legal analyst, a Swedish Jeffrey Toobin. Unfortunately, she was not only disrespectful but also asked Chairman Johan Munck to speculate about future cases and to give advice to legislators. Talk about not understanding the role and purpose of an independent judiciary and a major waste of tax payers’ money (it was on Swedish National Radio.)

And yes, people are worried that this might lead down a slippery slope to hate and violence. A friend brought up the classic hypothetical – also asked by the reporter in the interview with Munck – what if the word ‘homosexuality’ is replaced by e.g. ‘Judaism’ or ‘African Americans’, wouldn’t this have led to a conviction?
No!!!!! Not in this case, and that notion would require interpreting this ruling as a sign of homophobia or not taking homosexual persecution seriously. That is patently not so in Sweden. Really.
However, in those hypothetical cases, what people often mean are egregious ones where the tendency to incite would be much greater: e.g. an Islamist preacher attacks Judaism and in the same breath serves up some Holocaust denial and a touch of conspiracy theory like the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion. You cannot compare that to the Green case, any such comparison both trivializes real danger AND undermines free speech.

In Sweden, I also heard several sane voices who labeled him an extremist moron not worthy of martyrdom. And they point to the fact that ‘hate speech’ and ‘incitement’ are still crimes, and that Green was also acquitted because he was speaking to his congregation of FIFTY (!) people, i.e. not exactly to the general public. Considering what he said, I’m not sure if it would have made a difference if he had a larger audience. But there is always a limit. It just wasn’t reached this time. Not even close.
That’s how I see it.


Some people may want to link this verdict to today’s Vatican ‘instruction’ on gay priests. Both happened today and I doubt Chairman Munck of the Supreme Court of Sweden and Pope Benedict XVI of the Holy See conspired on this one. Anyway, if you get into the issues at hand, it’s more than a major stretch to make such a link and for a whole host of reasons.
If you want to read some dissident Catholic views on this particular matter – and why not indeed – I offer you Andrew Sullivan (he’s about to post on it) and Father Thomas Radcliffe O.P.
I may be the grateful recipient of a stellar Jesuit education, but I’ll have to legitimately cop out on this one. It’s a Church matter.

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