Eternal Vigilance in the Defense of Free Speech: An Interview with Lars Hedegaard
by Ann Snyder • Mar 3, 2011 at 1:50 pm
In January Lars Hedegaard, president and founder of the Danish and International Free Press Societies, was acquitted of charges brought under Article 266(b) of the Danish penal code, a "hate speech" provision. Just this past December, Danish MP, Jesper Langballe, rather than endure a circus of a trial "confessed," pleading guilty to violating Article 266(b) for remarks he made in support of Hedegaard.
In the days leading up to his prosecution, the Legal Project had an opportunity to catch up with Mr. Hedegaard. The conversation covered a wide array of topics from free speech in Denmark, to "no-go" zones, to the use of words like "Islamophobia," to what we must do to protect free speech. Highlights are presented below.
Denmark at the epicenter of the clash between Islamism and the West
From the never-ending Mohammed cartoon controversy to the recent trials of Langballe and Hedegaard, Denmark is one country that has been at that center of the clash between Islamism and the West with Danes at the vanguard in the defense of free speech. At least in part, according to Hedegaard, that has to do with "…a certain predilection among the Danes to defend freedom and not to kiss up to or trust authorities." A more worrisome reason, however, is that Denmark is vulnerable in ways the Danes had not imagined. Hedegaard explains:
Hedegaard raised concerns about an additional threat to free speech in Denmark and other states in the European Union: the adoption of the so-called "framework" decision on "racism and xenophobia" in November 2008 that went into effect this past year. The decision requires member-states to adopt criminal "hate speech" laws including genocide denial and "trivialization" provisions. The intellectual cancer of "hate speech" laws is spreading.
The over-breadth of Article 266(b) and its uneven application
A striking commonality of "hate speech" laws in Europe is their sweeping language. The relatively benign remarks of a typical American politician or pundit on the nightly news might violate the letter of these laws. This idea was the premise of a recent Legal Project blog, "I Confess, Too." I asked Mr. Hedegaard why, given the broad language of Article 266(b), we had not seen more prosecutions in Denmark and whether or not the law was being selectively applied. "Yes, it is selective, but we are going to see many more of them," he said. He went on to discuss recent events in the news suggesting that there may be new cases in the near future. "It is an orchestrated onslaught against free speech, and I think that the police and public prosecutor know very well what is expected of them. So we're going to see an avalanche, an army of such cases. Of course, they hope that I will be convicted on the 24th of January, which will pave the way---because I am a high profile public figure. If they can get me, they'll say well we can then go for the little folks," Hedegaard added. His acquittal has thus turned the tides for now. However, Article 266(b) is not being evenly applied across viewpoints. "We have a situation where the law does not apply to all. There is no equality before the law. It is being selectively used to get at people you don't like," he said.
Why Americans should care about the fate of free speech in Denmark
When I discuss threats to free speech in Europe with other Americans, I am often asked why they should care given the strong free speech protections afforded by our First Amendment. Among the reasons I cite are that denying freedom of speech is a human rights violation and that the First Amendment might not be as strong a protection as expected given the increasing role of international law. (Read an article by Legal Project Director, Daniel Huff, on this issue.) I asked Mr. Hedegaard to share his insights on why Americans should care about free speech rights in Denmark in light of First Amendment protections. Mr. Hedegaard advised:
While Danes fight to protect freedom, so-called "no go zones" have emerged
Though the outlook for Denmark may appear grim, Hedegaard and others like him keep up a determined fight to preserve Western ideals and liberties. Even so, in some areas of Europe, so-called "no-go zones," the battle (but hopefully not the war) has been lost. Mr. Hedegaard explains:
Moderate Islam and Moderate Muslims
In the fight to defend the West from Islamists and Islamism, there are some, including Middle East Forum Director, Daniel Pipes, who reject an essentialist view of Islam and suggest that the religion can change into a moderate formulation of Islam that is compatible with Western values. I asked Mr. Hedegaard to share his thoughts on the concept of a moderate Islam, on moderate Muslims, and the potential for reform in Islam. He remarked:
What's in a name? Labels of "racist" and "Islamophobe" used against critics of Islam
As our readers are aware, the Legal Project works to combat Islamism by protecting the right in the West to speak freely about Islam. Beyond the use of legal means to silence critics, words like "Islamophobe" and "Islamophobia" are used to delegitimize speaker and statement, respectively, rather than confront the substance of a given argument. Mr. Hedegaard and I discussed this phenomenon. Dispatching quickly the allegations of "racism" against critics of Islam, Hedegaard observed, "Islam is not a race." He went on to discuss the concept of "Islamophobia."
How to preserve our values against the threat of Islamism
In light of the threat posed by Islamists and Islamism not only to fundamental rights like freedom of expression but also to our Western civilization, Mr. Hedegaard and I discussed how to preserve our freedom: "The first step is to understand what Islam is, and people do not realize what we are up against. They do not realize what a pernicious ideology we are facing, even an ideology that does not really demand any sort of formal leadership," he said. He went on to add that unlike totalitarian ideologies like Communism and Nazism that were largely defeated when the states advocating those ideologies fell, Islam, without a formal head, is different. "As long as people think they will go to hell unless they live up to the requirements of Islam, it will exist. That is a much more difficult struggle than any struggle against other totalitarian ideologies," he said. Further, while Mr. Hedegaard and the International Free Press Society advocate the adoption of formal protections for free speech at the international level, ultimately, the responsibility for preserving our liberty rests with each of us. Hedegaard explains:
A qualified win for freedom of speech
Ultimately, when Mr. Hedegaard had his day in court he was victorious. He was acquitted because the court found that his remarks, while supposedly offensive, were not intended for public dissemination. (Please click here for a translation of 266(b) to parse the language for yourself.) In a statement following his acquittal, Hedegaard remarked that his "detractors—the foes of free speech and the enablers of an Islamic ascendancy in the West" would assert that he was acquitted on a "technicality." However, the author of this piece, a supporter, advocate of free speech, and no such enabler, would have to agree with them on that narrow point.
To be sure, the acquittal is an obvious win for Hedegaard and a decided victory for free speech in one sense. On the latter point, as Hedegaard notes, the prosecutor was aware of the circumstances surrounding the remarks but proceeded to trial anyway. Why the defense seems like a mere "technicality" is that no man's fundamental right to freedom of speech should ever be forced to rest on such meager grounds. (Of course nothing but congratulations to Mr. Hedegaard and his counsel are in order for successfully raising an available defense!) Mr. Hedegaard has an inherent right to say what did—in public or in private—despite Article 266(b)'s effect of limiting that right in practice. The penultimate win for free speech will be the day those who value their liberty have finally had enough of this nonsense and excise Article 266(b) and its ilk from the law books once and for all.
While individuals like Mr. Hedegaard and organizations like the Danish and International Free Press Societies are valiantly leading the way, no single person or entity, no court victory, and no law can safeguard our liberties for us. We must work to secure them for ourselves. As Hedegaard reminds us, the preservation of our freedoms requires "the eternal vigilance on the part of citizens."
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