By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Pirate Members of Parliament Helgi Gunnarsson, Jon Thor Olafsson, and Birgitta Jónsdóttir introduced the repeal measure.
Article 125 formerly of the Penal Code read in part: “Anyone who publicly ridicules or insults the dogmas or worship of a lawful religious community in Iceland, shall be fined or imprisoned for up to 3 months.”
Under this code, blasphemy defendants could face imprisonment for expressing views subject to arbitrary application of what would constitute an offense. Pirate Helgi Hrafin cited an example in 1997 where a comedy group was investigated for blasphemy after religious groups pressured police. Several defendants were made to wait months, worrying if they would eventually be prosecuted. He added:
“If we are to honor freedom of expression it’s not enough for us to point at somebody else and brag about how Western culture is supposedly much better at freedom of speech, we have to practice what we preach. We have to allow speech that goes no further than to offend the occasional person.
“People do not have a right to never be offended.”
He believes also that Iceland is far from perfect with regard to freedom of expression, and that much work still remains.
Of course others within Icelandic Society believe anti-blasphemy laws should remain. It is a position that is not fully contrary to the Pirate’s bill but can be viewed from a protection of religious liberty perspective. Iceland Monitor reports:
The Fíladelfía Pentecostal Church expressed its position: “Does a person’s human rights include the right to mock the beliefs of others? Do people really need the right openly to incite contempt for a given group of people on the grounds of their faith? […] Repealing existing legislation on blasphemy is tantamount to legalising hate speech. Current legislation does not ban freedom of expression or criticism of religion – it bans parody, irony and prejudice-inciting expression.”
The Catholic Church commented:
“For people of faith, religion and the image of God are important aspects of their existence, identity and dignity, and this should be protected by law. Should freedom of expression go so far as to mean that the identity of a person of faith can be freely insulted, then the personal freedom – as individuals or groups – is also undermined. Unlimited and unrestricted freedom of expression, without any sense of responsibility or natural social constraints, may lead to psychological abuse of individuals or groups. The Catholic Church in Iceland cannot and will not accept this new possibility of inflicting psychological abuse on individuals or groups.”
The repeal bill’s text has a statement that reads as follows: N.B. this translation results from a modification of an automatic translation to the English and might not constitute a fully accurate interpretation.
Freedom of speech is one of the cornerstones of democracy. It is essential in a free society that the public can express themselves without fear of punishment of any kind, either by authorities or others.
Article 125. Penal Code reads: “Anyone who publicly ridiculing or insulting the dogmas or worship of a lawful religious community in Iceland, shall be fined or imprisoned for up to 3 months. … [?]
With this bill that provision is abolished. Individuals have different perspectives on life and it is expected that expressions are such that while one might consider such normal, others might find these offensive. Fortunately, the experiences in people’s lives differ. Therefore, it is totally unrealistic to expect human thoughts, feelings and beliefs always fit within the framework of the so-called general propriety.
It has been argued that it is unnecessary to worry about the [blasphemy] Law as it is rarely used and an article that basically is a dead letter of the law:
– First it goes without argument the article is unfair.
– Second, [Did not translate. Original text is:] Í öðru lagi hefur almenningur rétt á því að geta kynnt sér hegningarlög og áttað sig með einhverjum hætti á því hvaða takmarkana sé ætlast til á hegðun manna og tjáningu. Því geta lögin haft hamlandi áhrif á samfélagið án þess að komi til kasta dómstóla.
– Thirdly, the leaders of Iceland did not condemn the application of similar laws in less free countries and they also established criminal blasphemy legislation in this country.
Recently the cause of the devastating attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris and is considered to be the controversy of published drawings of the prophet Muhammad.
Such attacks on people because of their expressions are unfortunately not a new phenomenon, and democratic societies must respond to such attacks with the clear message that freedom of expression will never be subjected to bloodshed, violence or intimidation. On these grounds we submit this bill to Parliament to share our message of solidarity.
Icelandic legislation has often been criticized for various shortcomings by international institutions, including that a judge may order a prison sentence for illegal expressions, including blasphemy. More strides need to be made, but here we propose that one of the most obvious disgraces to the Criminal Code be destroyed.
By Darren Smith
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