Finnish MP Päivi Räsänen tweeted her criticism of the state church supporting Helsinki Pride in 2019, with an image of Romans 1:24-27 alongside her message.

As a result, she was investigated under the Finnish Criminal Code for the offence of ethnic agitation” which could result in imprisonment for up to two years.

The investigation by the prosecutors also drew in a pamphlet that she had written in 2004 on human sexuality for a Christian foundation. The police had planned to drop the charges but the state prosecutor reopened the case. Räsänen was charged in April 2021 and the case came to court in January 2022. Alongside the Finnish MP, Bishop Juhuna Pohjola also faces charges for publishing the 2004 tract.

The verdict published at the end of March cleared Räsäsen and Pohjola of all charges, and ordered the prosecutor to pay costs. Speaking after the verdict Räsänen said: Although I am grateful for having had this chance to stand up for freedom of speech, I hope that this ruling will help prevent others from having to go through the same ordeal.”

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The court said that there must be an overriding social reason for interfering with and restricting freedom of expression”, and concluded in this case that the MP’s words should not be restricted in this way.

However, Finnish law permits the prosecutor to appeal not guilty verdicts, if necessary all the way to the Supreme Court, and they have indicated that they will do this and continue their prosecution of Räsäsen and Pohjola.

Paul Coleman, executive director of ADF International, a faith-based legal advocacy organisation who are supporting Räsänen in this case, said after the news that the state were appealing the not guilty verdict: As is so often the case in hate speech’ trials, the process has become part of the punishment.”

“As is so often the case in ‘hate speech’ trials, the process has become part of the punishment.”

Free speech in the UK

While this case is in Finland, it potentially has implications for the UK. Not least because in Räsänen’s defence lawyers cited the case of Handyside v UK government, in which the European Court of Human Rights found that in relation to freedom of expression: it is applicable not only to information’ or ideas’ that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no democratic society’.”

This case, from nearly 50 years ago, provides a vital underpinning for freedom of expression, but one which requires constant vigilance and care. Not least because there are regular challenges to the concept that speech which some find offensive should be protected. 

At present the UK government have an inconsistent approach to freedom of speech. In some measures they are seeking to strengthen legal protection, whereas in others there are threats which would close it down. In a highly politicised attempt to reform the UK’s human rights framework and replace the current Human Rights Act with a new Bill of Rights the government have said that they want to limit the restriction of freedom of expression to exceptional circumstances. This could potentially bolster the protection against unnecessary intrusion, but it could also be a largely symbolic gesture undermined by other policy measures.

This press for greater protection of free speech is contradicted by the approach proposed in the Online Safety Bill. In this Bill recently introduced to parliament, the government plans to place a duty on large technology companies to tackle legal but harmful” content. The categories of this content will be defined in secondary legislation – so not debated and agreed by parliament at this stage – and will be open to addition by the government with parliament’s approval in the future.

The government are guilty of double-speak in their explanation of this power. This will explicitly regulate content which is legal, but they say it will uphold freedom of expression to have challenging and controversial discussions”. While clarity about what is being regulated is better than the opaque censorship sometimes operated by online media entities, this is not a protection of free expression.

Expanding the notion of harm

It also explicitly confirms the challenge of an ever expanding notion of harm as a reason to restrict freedom of expression – contrary to the judgment in Handyside mentioned above. Legal decisions in matters of freedom of expression often depend on courts determining how to categorise content and speech; this is nothing new. Does something constitute an incitement to violence? Are words grossly offensive or just offensive?

Debate around hate crime legislation in different jurisdictions of the UK has turned on whether speech is intended to incite hate, or just likely too – the latter threshold is lacking in certainty and could lead to the situation where someone commits an offence without knowing they are. As far as possible, legal thresholds should be clear and not based on the subjective opinion of someone as to whether they feel harmed by the speech.

Harm” is also used more generally in public discussion to denote the consequence of something which should be stopped, but without any clear criteria to determine what is harmful and what isn’t. Of course, none of these problems with definitions and legislation provide a justification for causing harm, it simply illustrates that law needs more objective criteria for determining when freedom of expression can be infringed.

The UK has a proud record of defending freedom of speech; in our Speak Up resource we highlight the freedoms Christians have to share the gospel in private, in public, at work and online. But these freedoms need use to demonstrate their value. And the government can’t say they’re defending freedom of speech while undermining the law at the same time.