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Finnish Bible Trial shows what lies ahead under Scottish hate speech laws, says human rights lawyer

  • Sitting MP and grandmother of 10 faced criminal trial in Finland for tweeting Christian beliefs incl. Bible verse
  • Legal organisation warns that pending censorship legislation in Scotland & Ireland could see similar scenarios unfold here

EDINBURGH (5th September 2023) – In the aftermath of the criminal trial of Päivi Räsänen, the Finnish politician on trial for “hate speech” as a result of her 2019 Bible verse tweet, free speech experts have warned that these prosecutions could be the “canary in the coalmine” for what we can expect in Scotland once hate speech legislation has been introduced in 2024.

Räsänen’s tweet, which began a lengthy police investigation bringing forth three charges, challenged her Church leadership as to their justification for sponsoring a Pride event. She attached a picture of a Bible verse from the New Testament book of Romans.

The medical doctor and grandmother of ten was charged for “agitation against a minority group”, a provision that falls under the section of the Finnish Criminal Code titled “War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity.”

“I’m hopeful that all these charges will be acquitted. It’s a very important verdict for freedom of speech and of religion and Finland, and also has consequences across Europe, but I’m hopeful for a good result,” said Räsänen upon leaving the court.

Further charges related to a 2004 pamphlet she had written for her church titled “Male and Female He Created Them”, and a snippet of a radio show in 2019, taken out of context from a one hour live debate. Bishop Juhana Pohjola was also charged alongside Räsänen for having published the 2004 booklet. The prosecutor brought forward no witnesses at the trial, but instead argued on principle that certain groups of minorities might have been offended by Räsänen’s words, regardless of her intent. Neither did it matter, according to the prosecutor, if what she had written was “true”; what mattered was that it was insulting.

The prosecutor took particular issue with Räsänen’s “insulting” use of the word “sin”. The defense pointed out that as the word was lifted directly from scripture, to ban it would be to ban parts of the Bible.

Read the live tweet thread from the courtroom here.

A “Canary in the Coalmine” for the UK & Ireland

Speaking immediately after the trial, Paul Coleman, Executive Director of ADF International, British solicitor and author of “CENSORED: How European Hate Speech Laws are Threatening Freedom of Speech”, reflected on the parallels between the Finnish legislation and that which is pending in Scotland and Ireland:

“Few would have expected that in a Western democracy, in 2023, a public figure would be dragged before the courts simply for expressing her belief in the Bible.

Many have expressed shock and disapproval at the way that the Finnish State have treated Päivi Räsänen and Bishop Pohjola because of their faith. Yet, this case is a canary in the coalmine for what happens when we roll out laws which ban the vague and nebulous concept of “hate speech”, which can be interpreted as a right to censor any thought or opinion which lies outside of state approval.

In a free democracy, everyone must be allow to freely exchange their views. It’s not for the government to interpret the Bible for us, or make up our minds on any given social issue. Today, it’s Christian beliefs about marriage and human sexuality on trial – but just as easily it could be any number of other topics,” he continued.

Similar Hate Speech Laws may appear closer to home

Scotland’s “Hate Crime and Public Order Act” was passed by the Holyrood Parliament in 2021, but will be implemented only in 2024 at the earliest as the police force raised concerns about the pressure that the law would place on their resources.

Critics have raised concerns about the “vague” nature of the legislation – which bans speech construed to be “stirring up hatred” – with a potential punishment of up to seven years imprisonment. The wide-ranging and subjective speech prohibition covers private conversations, even within the home. Many across the political spectrum have united in condemnation of the Act, which Coleman says could allow the State a “free hand” to interfere in public debate, and prosecute those who hold minority beliefs.

In a letter sent last February, Assistant Chief Constable Gary Ritchie said it would be “impractical” to implement the Act in 2022 due to “constraints on operational policing resources; training resources and scheduling capacity”. Freedom of Information requests from the “Free to Disagree” campaign found that the cost of implementing the Act will reach almost £1.2 million.

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