Saturday, January 29, 2005

Tough Speech

Sweden has some very tough anti-hate speech laws, and a Pentecostal preacher has run afoul of them.

One Sunday in the summer of 2003, the Rev. Ake Green, a Pentecostal pastor, stepped into the pulpit of his small church in the southern Swedish village of Borgholm. There, the 63-year-old clergyman delivered a sermon denouncing homosexuality as “a deep cancerous tumor in the entire society” and condemning Sweden’s plan to allow gays to form legally recognized partnerships.

“Our country is facing a disaster of great proportions,” he told the 75 parishioners at the service. “Sexually twisted people will rape animals,” Green declared, and homosexuals “open the door to forbidden areas,” such as pedophilia.

With these words, which the local newspaper published at his request, Green ran afoul of Sweden’s strict laws against hate speech. He was indicted, convicted and sentenced to 30 days in jail. He remains free pending appeal.


In Sweden, Green’s case has focused particular attention on the government’s decision in 2002 to expand the country’s longstanding law against hate speech to cover gays and lesbians.

Critics of the prosecution say that while the pastor’s words might be hateful and extremist, the law was never intended to cover what a preacher said from the pulpit.

“My view is that one could argue about some words in his preaching, but he should not be put in jail for it,” said Mikael Oscarsson, a Christian Democratic member of parliament who met with religious groups in Washington last fall to publicize the case. “As a nation we have signed declarations saying one should have the right to speak and to express oneself,” he said. “This law goes against that right.”

Not so, say supporters of the law. In their view, the issue is stopping people — whether or not they are pastors — from promoting intolerance of gays and lesbians.

“Ake Green is only using his religion to say very bad things about gay and lesbian people as a group,” said Soren Andersson, president of the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights.

“If you look at his speech, and take away the word ‘gay’ and put in the word ‘Jew,’ you have a different picture.

“I don’t think it’s okay to say those things about Jews,” Andersson said. “But when it comes to gays and lesbians, it’s okay? Why? . . . This is about people — it’s about living people who are already treated very badly here.”

While I admire the sentiment behind the Swedish law, I think it’s over the top. History has proved that in a democratic society if you let the bigmouths and the crackpots just go ahead and talk, they’ll end up as a laughingstock. Such laws undermine the premise that a free society can tolerate people intent on making fools of themselves.