How a Bible Tweet Led to a Battle for Free Speech
It’s been called by many different names: the Finnish free speech trial, the Bible-tweet trial, and even “the trial of the century for the West.”
As the Finnish politician Päivi Räsänen faced the judges of the Helsinki Court of Appeal last week, the right to free speech for many is still at stake. Her case might become the litmus test for the robustness of free speech protections worldwide. Although Finland often tops the charts when it comes to regard for free expression, it has put one of its members of parliament on trial for publicly sharing her deeply held beliefs about marriage and sexuality.
It all began nearly four years ago when Räsänen shared a social media post directed at the leadership of her church – The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland – questioning their official sponsorship of the Helsinki Pride Parade in 2019 with an accompanying picture of Bible verses from the book of Romans.
After this, police dug into Räsänen’s past statements, and she endured a total of 13 hours of police interrogations. Then, in April 2021, the Finnish Prosecutor General formally charged Räsänen with three counts of “agitation against a minority group” for publicly voicing her opinion on marriage and human sexuality in a 2004 church pamphlet, which she wrote before the law she was charged under was even enforced; for comments she made on a 2019 radio show; and for the tweet directed at her church leadership. The Lutheran bishop Juhana Pohjola was also charged for publishing Räsänen’s 2004 church booklet for his congregation.
Incredibly, the charges fall under the war crimes and crimes against humanity section of the Finnish criminal code. Räsänen was put on trial after almost a year of waiting and then, following her full and unanimous acquittal by the Helsinki District Court, received the news that she would face a second trial when the prosecution appealed the ruling. This aggressive action by state authorities, precipitated by a single tweet, should raise a red flag for us all. If state prosecutors, with all the resources of the state available to them, were to comb through every statement and piece of writing that any of us have ever publicized for something that could be construed as offensive by someone, any of us could find ourselves in Räsänen’s shoes.
Freedom of expression is undoubtedly one of the most fundamental freedoms and features prominently in all major human rights treaties and national constitutions worldwide. But unfortunately, because Räsänen’s convictions are considered offensive by some, the debate around her case has often led to discussions about whether Räsänen was right or justified in saying what she said. This misses the point. The question is whether people are free to share, discuss, and question ideas publicly – even if some people find them offensive - without fear of criminal prosecution.
During the appeal trial, the prosecution stated that it didn’t matter whether what Räsänen stated – namely that affirming same-sex marriage is incompatible with Christian teaching – was true or not, but that it was insulting. This is the insidious effect of applying “hate speech” laws. The truth is irrelevant. Subjective opinion is what matters, and legal certainty is thrown out the window as “hate speech” laws are arbitrarily enforced. This generally results in the targeting of minority groups or opinions by those who disagree with state orthodoxy.
All this ignores the conclusions that the European Court of Human Rights reached in the landmark case of Handyside v. United Kingdom decades ago: freedom of expression is applicable not only “to information or ideas that are favorably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb; such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no democratic society.” As Räsänen points out herself, one does not need to agree with her beliefs to agree that everyone should have the right to speak freely.
As Räsänen waits for the ruling of the Court of Appeal, expected before November 30, a lot lies at stake. The verdict will reflect the state of regard for free speech in Europe. This is one to watch as a cautionary tale – not only for Europe, but for the rest of the world as well.