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Explainer: What you should know about Finland, Päivi Räsänen, and hate speech

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April 1, 2022

On March 30, a Finnish court issued a unanimous ruling dismissing ‘hate speech’ charges against Finnish MP Päivi Räsänen and Bishop Juhana Pohjola. According to Alliance Defending Freedom, who represented Räsänen in this case, the court ruled “it is not for the district court to interpret biblical concepts.” This case garnered international attention, especially from human rights advocates, due to the tenuous nature of expressing biblical views of sexuality in the public square and the nature of free speech in Europe. This ruling comes on the heels of larger ethical debates over overly broad and conflicting definitions of hate speech, the digital public square, and the freedom to express one’s religious views of human sexuality amidst growing social pressure.

Who is Päivi Räsänen?

Räsänen is a medical doctor, former Minister of the Interior (2011–2015), and current Member of Finnish Parliament (since 1995). She is married to a Lutheran pastor, Niilo, and together they have five children. She is an active member of the Finnish Lutheran Church and also chaired the Christian Democrats in Finland from 2004 to 2015. The party’s basic principles focus on their desire to see democracy built upon Christian values, including the dignity of all people and the rights that flow from that inherent dignity rooted in God’s creation of man and women as his image bearers. They explain, “Human dignity is based on a person’s being, not on their doing or abilities. It is priceless, regardless of gender, age, position, religion, origin of birth or other criteria.” From June 2011 to May 2015, she also held the office of the Minister of the Interior of Finland.

Räsänen has drawn significant controversy and the ire of many over her time as a member of the Finnish Parliament. On Oct. 29, 2010, Räsänen said that she would favor Christians over Muslims when selecting asylum seekers to Finland due, in her opinion, to Muslims’ “difficulties to adjust to the Finnish culture,” though she later clarified that she did not believe religion should be a top factor in immigration decisions. She is also a staunch pro-life advocate who has argued against the practice of abortion, contrasting abortion law to animal protection law saying that the latter gives better protection for animals than the former does to human fetuses.

What was this case about?

Charges of hate speech were brought against Räsänen in June 2021 following two years of investigations into her speech regarding several matters including the 2004 pamphlet, “As Man and Woman He Created Them: Homosexuality and the Challenge to the Christian Concept of Man”; comments during a 2-minute segment of a 2019 radio interview; and a tweet directed at the leadership of her church questioning their sponsorship of an LGBTQ+ pride event in 2009 and linking to an Instagram post with a picture of Romans 1:24-27.

Bishop Juhana Pohjola, who serves as the Dean of Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland, also faced charges for publishing Räsänen’s pamphlet for his congregation over 17 years ago. The pamphlet was published and distributed before the enactment of Finland’s hate speech law, which claims to stand for freedom of expression but bans speech declared to be “threatening or defaming people or population groups.” Hate speech under this law is punishable by fine or imprisonment. Räsänen was faced with up to two years of imprisonment due to the multiple criminal charges brought against her by Finland’s Prosecutor General. It should be noted that Räsänen’s tweet and radio interview have been freely available throughout this trial since they did not break Twitter or the radio broadcaster’s policies on hate speech. 

In June 2021, a letter signed by 48 ecclesiastical leaders representing 45 Lutheran church bodies and associations across the globe condemned the ongoing criminal prosecution of MP Räsänen and Bishop Pohjola. On Jan. 24, 2022, five U.S. Senators also sent a letter to United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain highlighting this case and encouraging the ambassador to raise concerns to the Finnish government about religious freedom and free speech and to condemn these charges.

On March 30, the Helsinki District Court acquitted and dismissed charges against both Räsänen and Pohjola. The court ruled that even if the statements were controversial, ​​”there must be an overriding social reason for interfering with and restricting freedom of expression.” After the ruling, Räsänen said, “I am so grateful the court recognized the threat to free speech and ruled in our favour. I feel a weight has been lifted off my shoulders after being acquitted. Although I am grateful for having had this chance to stand up for freedom of speech, I hope that this ruling will help prevent others from having to go through the same ordeal.”

What is hate speech?

Hate speech is notoriously difficult to define, especially on the international stage. It is often left undefined in legal terms because of the deep tension that exists between hate speech and free expression. The U.N.’s own plan of action on hate speech from May 2019 makes this clear by saying, “There is no international legal definition of hate speech, and the characterization of what is ‘hateful’ is controversial and disputed.” While the U.N. leaves hate speech undefined, it clearly desires robust protections against hate speech and calls it “a menace to democratic values, social stability and peace” that “must confront[ed] . . . at every turn.”

Similarly, in the United States, there is no legal definition of hate speech in U.S. law as the Supreme Court has routinely affirmed that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) states, “‘hate speech’ is protected by the First Amendment and cannot lawfully be censored, punished, or unduly burdened by the government — including public colleges and universities.” Expanding on notions of hate speech, the American Library Association explains that “under current First Amendment jurisprudence, hate speech can only be criminalized when it directly incites imminent criminal activity or consists of specific threats of violence targeted against a person or group” (emphasis mine).

Why does this matter to Christians?

While freedom of speech and religious freedom is central to the American experiment and should be championed around the world, this case is a good reminder that these freedoms are not rooted in the constitutional order or even in international law. These rights flow from the inherent dignity that all people, across all time and cultures, have as created in the imago Dei. It is important to remember that we do not have a right to be protected from controversial ideas in the public square, nor do we have the right to dictate to others what they must believe or practice in a free society. 

Building off of the legal boundaries of free speech and the limited scope of what constitutes hate speech, societies around the world need to cultivate and recover a robust, healthy dialogue surrounding these contentious issues. The best way to do that is to champion free expression and religious freedom for all, not just those with whom we agree or like. Free expression does not mean that we all must agree on these particular issues, but it does mean that everyone is able to speak their opinion freely and without fear of being cut off by those in power — whether in government or by technology companies who increasingly have authority over the digital public square.

Regardless of what one believes about Räsänen’s speech or beliefs surrounding human sexuality and gender issues, we should all be able to agree that these broadly defined hate speech policies are dangerous to free expression and our public discourse around the world. These issues will not simply pass away because God’s design for human sexuality is central to the life of the church and society. Our societies need more, not less, dialogue and engagement on these contentious issues. 

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as director of research and chair of research in technology ethics at ERLC. He is the author or editor of several books, including his latest "Following Jesus in a Digital Age" and "The Digital Public Square: Christian Ethics in a Technological Society." He is a graduate of The … Read More

Jordan Wootten

Jordan Wootten serves as a News and Culture Channel Editor at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. He is a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned his Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Jordan is married to Juliana, and they have three children. Read More by this Author