Like it or not, democracy certainly comes with variety. We may not individually agree with politicians’ outlook on everything, but we still consider it reasonable for them to hold personal views. While thoughts on traditional gender roles in child weaning or creationism may generally be considered controversial, the inherent right of elected officials to express these views is not. And while some other opinions might have gone beyond the realm of controversy to the utterly scandalous, it’s inconceivable that the people behind the expression of such sentiments would have to face the brunt force of the law for their speech. The political heavyweights behind statements affirming the “positives” in Lenin’s rule or supporting the leadership of Chairman Mao should hardly have expected the police to start knocking on their front doors wielding handcuffs. 

So why are views relating to the Bible now considered so beyond the pale? 

On Monday, Päivi Räsänen, the Finnish MP and former Minister of the Interior, faced her first day of criminal trial. It was an outrageous application of “hate speech” laws in Finland.

What was the extent of her grievous crime? A few years ago, she sent a tweet. The tweet was a question, directed at her church leadership. Where, in the Bible, did they find the grounds to justify their sponsorship of the Helsinki Pride Parade 2019? Alongside the question, she attached an image of some Bible verses from the book of Romans.

The tweet triggered the usual to-and-fro of Twitter opinions as a politician might expect to see when she weighs in on a social and theological debate. Some for, some against. The post violated none of Twitter’s own policies and remains online to this day. But as the social media chatter died down, events took a more serious turn as the opposition MP and grandmother was placed under state investigation for the post.   

Before long, Päivi was charged with three counts of “ethnic agitation”, as referred to under the “war crimes and crimes against humanity” section of the Finnish Criminal Code. In addition to the tweet, the investigators had dug back into her past to unearth an old, dust-collecting pamphlet from 2004 that she had written for her church about the church’s own view on marriage and sexuality, and charged her for that too. Then, they took a short segment out of an hour-long radio discussion show that covered related topics on sexuality, and considered her beliefs to be criminal, tallying up to three counts of “misspeak”. The offense carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison. 

When she committed her alleged “crimes”, Päivi Räsänen was a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Finland. This is not just a fringe church; it has held a prominent position in her country since the Reformation of the 16th century. Originating from the teaching of the German priest Martin Luther, Lutheranism reveres the Bible as the final source of truth about God. Räsänen grew up ascribing to this popular branch of Protestantism, and when she was elected into office as an MP in 1995, nearly 90% of the Finnish population belonged to the Christian denomination.  

Opinions on sexual ethics were also vastly different now to when Päivi was first elected. Same-sex marriage had not been legalised anywhere in the world in the mid-90s. The Netherlands was the first country to do so in 2000, and now only 31 countries have followed suit. In England, same-sex marriage was legalised less than 10 years ago, and social approval for it has shifted rapidly within a generation. Yet, while cultural opinions on sexual morals and lifestyles have evolved extensively in a short period of time, many people who hold fast to the inviolable words of a divinely-inspired text choose not to change their minds. One of these now minority voices belongs to Päivi, a former Government Minister preparing herself for court on the basis of her country’s hate speech laws. 

“Hate speech” is fast becoming one of Europe’s most dangerous criminal phrases. It started off in legal imagination after the Second World War as proposals by the Soviet nations to limit “fascist” speech but was rejected by more liberal nations. Next, it was gradually incorporated into international texts. Today, it has expanded in national “human rights” legal systems to the point where it is being deployed to censor everyday, normal speech. The widening of the principles behind this vague but ubiquitous “crime” has given the justification the Finnish Prosecutor

General needed to consider Päivi’s opinions on marriage and human sexuality worthy of a crime.  

It’s fair to say, the customary Finnish sense and sensibility has been utterly thrown out the window. 

Päivi’s trial holds a sombre message for any and all of us who call ourselves true liberals, believers in free speech, and advocates for democracy. It shows us how wide so-called “hate speech” laws can evolve and be interpreted in countries similar to our own, and how fast “offence” can criminalise views. 

It is also a stark reminder to us about how tightly we need to hold on to core, cornerstone rights such as freedom of speech and expression that once seemed self-evident. Public outrage over Scotland’s Hate Crime Act might have subsided over the past year as the law has become normalised, but we shouldn’t forget that certain comments made about gender around a dinner table could still be illegal north of the border. In England and Wales, the Law Commission is still considering how to tighten speech laws. The proposals, released just before Christmas, include criminalising certain topics that no longer should be spoken about in society. They have also proposed a highly subjective offence to criminalise threatening or abusive words likely to “stir up” hatred against certain groups of people (albeit not other groups). Criminal intent could be deemed irrelevant, and the reactions of a “protected” group of listeners could trump in court.  

Freedom of speech really is on trial. And if we’re not careful, one of our elected officials who tweets something another person dislikes could be next in the dock. 

Lizzie Troughton is legal officer at ADF UK, a faith-based advocacy group.