The Lawsuit against Lars Hedegaard: A Warning to All
By Ahmed Mohamud and Eva Agnete Selsing
COPENHAGEN September 27, 2010 – If you’re thinking about saying or writing something about a particular group of people, a culture, a religion or any other sociological category in terms which might be considered negative or offensive, then ask yourself this: Are you prepared to risk prosecution and a possible conviction for racism – and all the consequences that entails?
No? That’s what we thought. But that’s probably the real intention behind a law that makes criminals of people not just for their views but because they have taken the liberty of referring to unpleasant facts. This how the law works in Denmark today.
The Danish Public Prosecutor – after first indicting pastor and Member of Parliament Jesper Langballe for racism – is now bringing a case against the President of the Free Press Society, Lars Hedegaard on the same grounds. Both stand accused of having violated article 266 b of the penal code, also known as the “racism clause”. The article makes it an offence to threaten, demean or ridicule people because of their race, skin colour, national or ethnic origin, religious faith or sexual orientation.
Hedegaard’s indictment came after his remarks last December on violence and other personal offences in Muslim families. These remarks were made in a taped interview in which Mr. Hedegaard said that “they” (Muslims) rape their own children. Not a very diplomatic statement of course, and also a very imprecise one. But can people really be prosecuted for remarks like that in modern day Denmark?
A very odd clause
This issue has been the object of much debate in the Danish papers, and Berlingske Tidende and Jyllands-Posten (the paper with the Muhammad cartoons) both ran leading articles about article 266 b and why it should be reformed.
The conservative MP Naser Khader, an immigrant of Muslim background, wrote an article in the daily Berlingske Tidende defending Hedegaard, stating that neither Hedegaard nor his remarks were racist. In a blog article the liberal-leaning jurist Jacob Mchangama demanded that 266 b be modified.
Which of course sounds very good. But the story also has an unpleasant twist. Many of those professing their commitment to free speech have taken the opportunity to character-assassinate Lars Hedegaard. What they say is in essence this: Yes, article 266 b is outdated, and yes Lars Hedegaard has a perfect right to say whatever he thinks – even though his motives are probably of the most unsavoury kind.
Such half-hearted supporters have their own private reasons – political, strategic or emotional – for defending the cause of free speech. But none of them are very convincing, so perhaps we can give them a little help – especially regarding those aspects of Lars Hedegaard’ s remarks that brought him into conflict with the controversial racism clause.
On the tape that started the whole ruckus, Hedegaard used the plural form of the definite article, which means that he did not say all Muslims committed the alleged improprieties nor even that many of them did.
But these fine distinctions needed clarifying and the day after his original off-hand remark was brought to the attention of the public, Lars Hedegaard specified exactly what he meant in an article entitled “View from the swamp”. Here he stated that the problem with family violence is “naturally not something that goes on in every single Muslim family. I don’t even claim that it happens in most of them. But nor can I disregard what seem to be matters of fact.”
In other words, people who insist on concluding that Hedegaard was targeting if not all then at any rate most Muslims, are doing so in bad faith. Hedegaard wanted quite simply to raise an issue that is normally taboo in Western media. But instead of a debate about a very serious subject he was immediately made the object of a smear campaign for having dared raise the issue at all. The tabloid press smelt blood and cheerfully sacrificed the substance of the affair in the certain knowledge that their readers were more interested in burning a heretic than finding out what the whole issue was really about.
Is truth the new hate speech?
But the truth will out and in his clarifying article “View from the swamp” Hedegaard was able to refer to a whole range of Muslims, islamologists and arabists who all confirmed that there really is a problem with violence and sexual violations in Muslim families. At this point some of his detractors began to have second thoughts and shortly afterwards other Danish newspapers – Politiken and Kristeligt Dagblad – published articles corroborating the fact that the story was not just something a nasty racist had made up. In his blog at Berlingske Tidende, journalist Mads Kastrup ended up agreeing with Hedegaard.
So all in all there is now evidence enough to suggest that the problem really exists. But the next question is to what extent does it exist? This is of course difficult to put into statistics, but there can be no doubt that intra-family violence of this kind actually happens – unless of course one takes the easy way out and chooses to dismiss known facts as merely the ramblings of Lars Hedegaard’s warped mind.
So we’re not talking about contentions but about facts. But there is nothing in the racism clause about them, and this poses a problem. Suppose somebody comes up with a contemptuous and degrading remark about a given group of people – elderly white men for example – and it turns out to be true? What happens then?
Does the denigration aspect outweigh the truth aspect? In other words has truth become the new hate speech? If one listens to Hedegaard’s critics, then the answer is apparently “yes”, and the fact that Hedegaard’s conclusions are the result of ten years of intensive research on this and related subjects appears to be of little interest to heretic hunters. Does truth really count for so little? Like most historians Hedegaard has read up on his subject and drawn his own conclusions. Other people have drawn other conclusions, and they are of course perfectly entitled to do that.
But Hedegaard apparently is not, and this entails a serious challenge both for him and for everyone else that sets out to do research in areas like sociology, psychology, religion or behavioural science. Would they too fall foul of the “racism” clause if they revealed something deemed to be politically inappropriate?
And what about statistics? Wouldn’t it be best to prohibit them just to be on the safe side? Impersonal as they are, they establish neutral but sometimes disturbing facts about sociological groups and must therefore eo ipso be generalisations. Sometimes even about Muslims. Is the Public Prosecutor happy with that?
The end of the plural
If we are to believe his critics, Hedegaard’s remarks were wrong because they were “generalisations” about a particular group. Which of course is patently untrue, but that doesn’t bother the critics. So where does all this lead us?
Could this mean that anybody who is critical of a particular group and uses either the definite or the indefinite plural might at some future date be taken to court for racism? This would certainly keep the law courts busy and, though this new practice might be welcomed by a few solicitors’ clerks, our freedom of speech would be seriously curtailed.
This dismal prospect apparently leaves Hedegaard’s critics undaunted since they consider all generalisations to be the Devil’s work. But the real issue – which they seemingly have no eye for – is of course this: What does article 266 b of the Danish penal code actually do? Well, it tells us among other things that we must not say disparaging things about elderly white men. But this implies that all elderly white men would take offence at them, which is quite absurd.
In other words, article 266 b is itself a generalisation about the touchiness of a certain group whose members have apparently never grown up. This is of course a very condescending attitude towards certain sections of the population and therefore – if there is to be some symmetry in the way article 226 b is enforced – ought to come under the scrutiny of the Public Prosecutor
The Public Prosecutor’s friends
But was the idea of symmetry ever seriously intended in the first place? It certainly doesn’t seem so. If the Public Prosecutor really wanted to be fair, he would long ago have initiated proceedings against people like the radio host and commentator Klaus Rothstein for his repeated highlighting of the abuse of minors by “the priests in the Irish catholic church”.
Is every priest in Ireland really a child molester?
Or he would have come after author Frederik Stjernfelt, who writes on the free speech network Free Debate about a woman who is famous for “fighting against Muslim violence against women”.
Shouldn´t both these sentences be changed to “some priests” or “violence against some Muslim women” in order to avoid generalisation?
And what about the Left’s innumerable accusations about how xenophobic and racist Danes are? We’re tempted to remind them of the endless perfidious attacks on The Danish People’s Party and other alleged right-wingers. But since this minority group doesn’t represent a faith or a particular sexual orientation or a nationality, it is not protected by 226 b.
Aren’t we all grown-ups? Apparently not
Here in the Free Press Society we believe that the answer to the question of how 226 b is being (mis)used is really very simple. The politico-moralist establishment wants a special language to be used when talking about cultural minorities. And by “cultural minorities” they of course really mean Islam, as nobody cares very much about the others.
This is a great mistake. Not only because it is based on the deprecating assumption that Muslims are especially touchy and therefore unable to distinguish between word and deed, but also because it marks the beginning of a dangerous new tendency. If we must constantly curb our language for fear of offending Muslims (and thereby breaking the law), then the outlook for the future of free speech looks gloomy indeed.
An open society cannot operate with a legal system that suddenly veers out of balance whenever someone uses everyday language to describe phenomena relating to a special group. This is untenable.
If the law forbids us to use imprecise descriptions of certain groups while others enjoy no protection at all, then this is tantamount to establishing a legal aristocracy.
It would mean exempting one particular group from being referred to in public debate on par with everybody else.
So we’re not far away from an Orwellian nightmare where the free exchange of opinions has been abolished and replaced by the amputated debating culture of the politically correct.
This means a deeply asymmetric debate where everything left-of-centre is accepted as the norm while everything right-of-centre is prohibited. And article 226 b is an effective instrument for doing just that.
But let’s hope that it never materialises. History has shown us many examples of what happens when the State censures free debate. So let us instead revoke article 226 b on the grounds that we are all grown-ups and therefore able to distinguish between words and deeds.
But until then we would advise you not mention facts that the legal aristocracy hpoes to keep under wraps.
Lars Hedegaard will be speaking at our upcoming IFPS Lars Vilks in North America events. Click here for more information.