In Denmark, in recent weeks, the issue of free speech has figured prominently in the news.
This March, an outspoken critic of Islam, Jaleh Tavakoli, Danish-Iranian blogger and author of the book, Public Secrets of Islam, was threatened by the Social Supervisory Authority (Socialtilsyn Øst) that her foster-daughter would be removed from her care after Tavakoli shared an online video of the rape and murder by Islamic State terrorists in Morocco of two Scandinavian young women. She was informed in a letter that the government agency's approval of her husband and her as foster parents -- they had been raising the 8-year-old since she was a newborn baby -- had been rescinded and that the girl might be taken away from them, as the authority did not consider them to "have the necessary quality to have children in your care." The letter also said:
"As a generally approved foster family, one assumes a special task in relation to taking care of children with special needs, so that the family's morality or ethics must not be questionable to any significant extent".
In its letter, the Social Supervisory Authority mentioned that Tavakoli has been charged -- but not convicted -- under Danish criminal law for sharing the video of the jihadist murder of Louisa Vesterager Jespersen. Under Danish law, it is illegal "improperly to disclose messages or images relating to someone else's private affairs or otherwise pictures of the person... in circumstances which it may be... required to keep out of the public [sphere]".
Tavakoli explained that she shared the video because the international media was reporting that the Danish woman had been beheaded, while no such information was to be found in the Danish media.
The Social Supervisory Authority wrote to Tavakoli:
"It can be problematic for your foster child that you, Jaleh, are charged with a serious offense as a result of your video sharing as part of your public participation [in the] debate ... the way you, Jaleh, have chosen to expose yourself and communicate politically in the current case of sharing a violent video... and the fact that you appear in the public debate... in leading Danish media, both printed and electronic, can compromise your role as a foster parent... that you, Jaleh, as one of the primary role models for your foster child is so heavily exposed and in this connection has passed on a very violent video, may constitute a complicated situation for your foster child... That you, Jaleh, through your behavior on social media in the present case, [do not] act as the 'digital role model' a foster parent must be... In this context, your activities may confuse and cause serious doubts in a child about how to act in the digital universe..."
"It is the worst kind of abuse of power I have ever seen" said Danish lawyer Karoly Németh, who is representing Tavakoli and her husband. The Social Supervisory Authority's letter caused widespread outrage in Denmark, including among politicians across the political spectrum. The Minister for Children and Social Affairs, Mai Mercado, wrote on Facebook:
"I am speechless. I cannot go into the specific case, which I understand is not yet settled. I must say quite clearly that if the rules in any way cause children in foster care to get caught [in the system], then I am ready to change the rules immediately and I have already been informed that it can be urgently dealt with if necessary".
The Social Supervisory Authority, since it sent its letter, seems to be backtracking. Its officials sent a new letter to Tavakoli and her husband in which they said they "would like to note that the social supervision has not intended to relate to the freedom of expression of the foster family, as foster families have the same freedom of expression as all other citizens in Denmark".
The case is ongoing and Tavakoli still has not received a final answer about what will happen to her foster daughter. What is shocking is that a state agency has threatened to remove a foster child from her only family, not because there is the slightest suspicion of ill-treatment of the child, but because of the foster mother's exercising her freedom of speech.
In a separate attempt to shut down free speech, the state-owned and taxpayer-funded Danish media outlet, which includes radio, television and internet, DR (formerly Danmarks Radio), also known as dr.dk., contacted Facebook at the beginning of April, complaining about a small, independent Danish internet media site, 24nyt.dk. The site has been critical of the EU, the consequences of Muslim immigration into Denmark and the Danish establishment in general. After DR lodged its complaint with Facebook, Facebook deleted 24nyt.dk's Facebook page. "A week ago, DR contacted Facebook and presented them with a number of facts and questions regarding 24nyt's actions on their platform," DR wrote in an article on its website.
"Facebook confirms in a text message to DR News that, based on that study [which DR conducted of 24nyt], they have closed 24nyt, but have not yet elaborated on exactly what the reason is."
Later, DR, without explanation, changed the wording of the article so that it did not admit DRs crucial role and therefore now stated:
"Facebook says to DR that they have closed 24nyt's Facebook page because of 'non-authentic and misleading behavior'. Facebook has so far not elaborated on what it actually means".
Social media expert Johan Farkas of Sweden's Malmö University called the measure "extraordinary". "It is highly unusual that Facebook throws out a Danish media site. As far as I know, this is the first time...", he said.
Perhaps some of the explanation for DRs wish to have the small news outlet removed from Facebook can be found in the fact that 24nyt.dk was a competitor. According to an article in DR:
"Over the past year, 24nyt have reached 295,000 likes, responses, sharing and comments on Facebook. DR has found this based on data from Facebook. Thus, the relatively young medium has received more interactions than the daily [mainstream] newspaper Børsen, and it is approaching the level of the [larger mainstream] newspapers Information and Kristeligt Dagblad."
The timing of the shutdown was also noteworthy. General elections in Denmark will take place at the latest on June 17, 2019. In addition, elections to the European Parliament are scheduled to take place May 23-26, 2019. 24nyt.dk is not only critical of the EU and Danish immigration policies but also of political establishment policies.
Is it acceptable for a state-owned media juggernaut, such as DR, to crush a small private competitor that has no public funding, by having its official page deleted from Facebook? In Denmark, virtually no one in the mainstream media or in the political establishment appears to care.
The limits of freedom of speech in Denmark were tested most dramatically, however, when on April 14, Rasmus Paludan, chairman of the small anti-Islam party, Stram Kurs -- which is trying to run in the upcoming elections -- held one of his many anti-Islam demonstrations, this time in the Copenhagen neighborhood of Nørrebro, which has a high percentage of Muslim residents. Paludan, who calls himself, "the soldier of freedom, the protector of the weak, the guardian of society, the light of the Danes", has been touring Denmark with his anti-Islam protests for the past year. His demonstrations frequently feature a "Koran stunt". In it, Paludan either throws a Koran around, burns it or puts bacon on it. In April, Paludan was handed a suspended sentence of 14 days in prison for making allegedly racist statements about Africans in a video he uploaded to the internet. Paludan has appealed the sentence.
"It is important to continue until there are no longer Muslims or others in this country who believe they can decide what the limit of freedom of expression should be," Paludan, who is under police protection after receiving death threats, explained in an interview.
"If people start to change their legal, democratic statements because somebody wants to hurt them or try to kill them, well, then we don't have a democracy anymore. So, I am not at fault whatsoever that there is a threat to my person... There are two things in Denmark that are completely legal, but which no one dares to do: To defile the Koran by burning it, throwing it or putting bacon in it, and to draw the prophet Muhammad. The reason is that the risk of being attacked or killed is very high. We do not believe that assailants and murderers should decide where the limits of free speech should be, and therefore we think it is important to do just that".
The demonstration on Nørrebro on April 14 only lasted 15 or 20 minutes. Paludan, and especially the police who were protecting him there, were assaulted by local Muslims and far-left activists, and Paludan had to be removed for his safety. There followed violent riots in the neighborhood for hours, including arson and stone-throwing at the police. The riots later spread to other parts of Copenhagen, with 20 instances of arson and 23 arrests. As a result, the police forbade Paludan from demonstrating in Copenhagen for a week.
"Freedom of speech is seriously imperiled when violence and riots [are allowed] to stop demonstrations" said Jonas Christoffersen, director of the Danish Institute for Human Rights. "It is a problem that Rasmus Paludan cannot be allowed to express himself. What we have seen is extremely serious in a democracy that has such riots", he said, advising dissatisfied citizens to protest Paludan with peaceful counter-demonstrations or to simply ignore him.
"If the tendency of groups of people stopping other people from expressing themselves through violence or riots continues, this could dissuade others from uttering their opinions. It can have the effect that people generally will not speak or are afraid to speak because they fear the reactions."
Several senior politicians appeared to be blaming Paludan for his actions more than blaming those who were violently assaulting the police and him. Even if one thinks that Paludan's actions were insensitive and insulting to Muslims, his actions are legal and protected under Danish law. The right to freedom of speech protects the minority from the tyranny of the majority. Soothing, politically correct speech does not need protection. Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen tweeted following the riots:
"[I] strongly disagree with Paludan's meaningless provocations that have no purpose other than to sow divisions. Meet him with arguments - not with violence. Protect democracy and freedom of speech. Do not let derogatory actions aimed at specific groups in DK [Denmark] ruin our unity."
Minister of Justice Søren Pape Poulsen tweeted:
"A sad Sunday. Paludan's circus where it is only about sowing divisions between people and provoke[ing], and the other side with very violent anti-democrats who are so insane as to throw stones at the police. Violence is never the answer! Use arguments - or better yet - ignore Paludan."
Notably, neither minister explicitly mentioned who was behind the violence against Paludan.
As some Danish commentators have pointed out, however, the value at stake here is not Paludan, but whether freedom of speech, regardless of what or whom it insults, can be guaranteed when it is met with violence and riots.
That question seems already to have been answered in 2006, after the Danish cartoon drawings of Mohammad, when riots broke out in the Muslim world. They resulted in attacks and even arson on Danish embassies in some Muslim countries, such as Syria. The Danish cartoonists received death threats; one of the cartoonists was the victim of an attempted murder. Instead of standing with the Danish cartoonists, many chose to qualify the value of free speech. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, for instance, in 2006 criticized European newspapers for republishing the cartoons:
"There is freedom of speech, we all respect that. But there is not any obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory. I believe that the republication of these cartoons has been unnecessary. It has been insensitive. It has been disrespectful and it has been wrong."
Similarly, also in 2006, the US State Department said:
"These cartoons are indeed offensive to the belief of Muslims. We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable."
The question appeared to receive its final answer ten years later, when the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of Mohammad and paid with the lives of many of its staff. The magazine's editors later said that there would be no more Mohammed cartoons.
Paludan's attempts to turn back the clock on the issue by resorting to Koran-burnings and the like are unlikely to change the situation, as the large number of policemen needed to protect his safety amply demonstrates. Precisely because of that, both in Denmark and throughout Europe, it is urgent to keep freedom of speech from eroding any further.
John Richardson is a researcher based in the United States.