Who comes to mind when criminal charges categorised under “war crimes and crimes against humanity” are levied? Likely a dictator, corrupt general, or other terrorist actor. But the world has been put on notice that even a grandmother and longstanding parliamentarian in Finland can fall prey to such odious charges when the state becomes ideologically committed to censorship.
“Hate speech” charges under the Finnish criminal code’s war crimes section for “agitation against a minority group” is what happened to the former Finnish Minister of the Interior, Päivi Räsänen, who has served as a parliamentary representative for nearly thirty years. On the basis of her simple and peaceful articulation of a Christian view of marriage and sexuality, Räsänen was criminally charged and dragged through the courts for over four years, beginning in 2019. If her case wasn’t such a serious warning shot to us all regarding the erosion of the basic human right to free speech, it would be laughable to consider that the legal persecution she faced started because of a tweet.
As a devout Christian, Räsänen saw a discrepancy between the decision of her church’s leadership to officially sponsor the Helsinki Pride parade in 2019 and biblical teachings about marriage and sexuality. So, she penned a post on Twitter/X, accompanied by a photo of Bible verses from the book of Romans.
What followed was a total of 13 hours of police interrogations into Räsänen’s beliefs and interpretation of the Bible. The prosecution also dug up an almost 20-year-old church booklet that she had written about God’s design for marriage and human sexuality, in addition to pulling a couple of sentences from a live radio discussion that Räsänen had made on the topic in 2019. Lutheran bishop Juhana Pohjola was also charged with “hate speech” for publishing Räsänen’s booklet for his congregation.
Although the police recommended not to proceed with prosecution, the Finnish state Prosecutor General brought three charges against Räsänen in April 2021. At the trial before the District Court, the prosecutor presented Bible verses from the Old Testament with which she took issue, cross-examining Räsänen and the bishop on their theology. Thankfully, the District Court eventually handed down a commonsense decision fully and unanimously acquitting Räsänen and the bishop, stating that, “it is not for the District Court to interpret biblical concepts”.
But this wasn’t the end of the ordeal. The prosecution appealed the ruling, dragging Räsänen before a higher court, and saddling the Finnish taxpayer with the cost. And last week, in a momentous victory for free speech, Räsänen and the bishop again were unanimously acquitted by the Helsinki Court of Appeal, which saw “no reason, on the basis of the evidence received at the main hearing, to assess the case in any respect differently from the District Court.”
While we may be tempted to take an “all’s well that ends well approach” with Räsänen and the bishop vindicated and the fundamental right to free speech upheld, we must not lose sight of the enormous toll taken as a consequence of the prosecution’s outrageous quest to silence and sanction peaceful expression.
Consider the burden Räsänen carried, including time spent, fees incurred, and the media storm she has had to weather trying to correct rampant lies about her views. Fortunately, the court has ordered the prosecution to cover the legal costs, but even so, for Räsänen and the bishop, the process has been the punishment.
And we can only begin to forecast the widespread chilling effect on the rest of society. Anyone who wants to express a view differing from current orthodoxies likely will proceed with caution lest they, too, fall victim to state-driven censorship.
Some might disagree with Räsänen’s convictions, as is and should be their right. But respect for disagreement is foundational to any healthy democracy, and protecting the principle of free speech is paramount. Vague and subjective “hate speech” laws, the likes of which were leveraged to shut down Räsänen, must be vigorously opposed. For so long as these laws stand, any of us could end up in this grandmother’s shoes, charged with “crimes” we hopefully can agree should be reserved for those who commit actual crimes against humanity, not peaceful Twitter posts.