The Finnish government’s attack on free speech is a violation of human rights
Across the pond, Päivi Räsänen, a member of the Finnish Parliament, stood trial last week for publicly sharing a Bible verse explaining her views on marriage. The government’s aggressive prosecution of Räsänen was based on the theory that her “interpretation and opinion” about the Bible was “criminal.” Her trial is a direct assault on free speech in Finland and a chilling reminder of what can happen when the government is allowed to censor speech.
Päivi Räsänen is the mother of five children and grandmother to ten. She’s also a medical doctor and long-serving parliamentarian, most recently elected in April 2023. Upon her arrival for trial, she boldly shared her faith: “Everyone should be able to share their beliefs without fearing censorship by state authorities. I know that the prosecution is trying to make an example of me to scare others into silence. Yet, you do not have to align with my views to agree that everyone should be able to speak freely. With God’s help I will remain steadfast and continue defending everyone’s human right to free speech.”
Räsänen’s ordeal began in 2019 when, as a member of the Finnish Lutheran Church, she tweeted out an image of Bible verses and her disagreement with her church’s sponsorship of “Pride 2019.” This led to an investigation where Päivi was questioned by police about her understanding of the Bible. The prosecutor then brought charges for three counts of “hate speech”—for her tweet, for a 2004 church pamphlet, and for a 2019 radio interview. According to the government, Päivi was guilty of “agitation against a minority group” under the Finnish Criminal Code’s prohibition of “War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity.”
The first day of trial revealed nothing less than an Orwellian view of speech. The prosecution dredged up statements made by Räsänen nearly two decades ago regarding Christian anthropology. The prosecutor argued that the “point isn’t whether” what Räsänen wrote about human sexuality was “true” “but that it is insulting.” According to the prosecutor, Räsänen’s use of the word “sin” some 20 years ago was “degrading” and violated “sexual rights.”
The Finnish government claimed the authority to “limit freedom of expression in the outward expression of religion.”
Päivi’s co-defendant Bishop Juhana Pohjola, who was also charged with “hate speech” for publishing the 2004 pamphlet, explained that the pamphlet emphasized the equal worth and dignity of every person. “Condemning sinful deeds does not mean questioning a person’s worth and dignity,” he told the court.
Räsänen’s case reveals a chilling view of free speech. The Finnish government claimed the authority to “limit freedom of expression in the outward expression of religion.” In other words, while people might be free to think and believe according to their faith (at least at the moment), its outward expression could be criminalized. This means that a person could be prosecuted for peacefully praying aloud outside an abortion clinic—or within the confines of one’s church. It cedes to the government the power to censor speech based on the ideas it conveys and to eliminate disfavored views from the public discourse. As Paul Coleman, my colleague at ADF International and part of Räsänen’s legal team, said “cases like Päivi’s create a culture of fear and censorship and are becoming increasingly common worldwide.”
Thankfully, that view of free speech has no place in American law. And for good reason. The freedom to think and believe and to speak and act consistently with those beliefs is fundamental to a free society. As the United States Supreme Court recently recognized in 303 Creative v. Elenis, where the government of Colorado sought to force website designer Lorie Smith to speak contrary to her faith, “the freedom to think and speak is among our inalienable human rights.” In large part because of the religious persecution from which many of the first Americans were fleeing, the freedom to speak is enshrined as a “fixed star in our constitutional constellation.” But as Räsänen’s trial shows, this crucial right requires diligent protection.