Published March 10, 2017
A subject of heated discussion in Icelandic news lately has been freedom of expression. Here in Iceland, as in other parts of the world, “freedom of expression” is often confused with “freedom from criticism,” often by those who stress the importance of freedom of expression most of all.
Case in point: the radio station Útvarp Saga. Many of our readers will already be familiar with the call-in portion of their programming, Línan er laus (in English: “The line is open”), wherein the country’s bigots call in to gripe about foreigners in general. They seem to focus on Muslims in particular, and how liberal views are destroying the fabric of our society. If you regularly take the city bus, you might have found yourself forced to listen to the awful opinions belched forth on this show, whether you like it or not.
To Iceland’s credit, both the show and its hosts, Pétur Gunnlaugsson and Árnþrúður Karlsdóttir, are regularly criticised elsewhere in the media and society for being unrepentantly racist and for spreading the kind of misinformation that gave rise to such phenomenon as the now-mostly-disappeared Icelandic National Front. But each and every time Pétur and company are met with such criticism, their response is always the same: that they have a right to freedom of expression in this country.
However, in Iceland, like many other countries, freedom of expression has its legal limitations, too. In particular, Article 233(a) of the Penal Code states: “Anyone who in a ridiculing, slanderous, insulting, threatening or any other manner publicly assaults [ed. in this context, this refers to verbal assault as well as physical] a person or a group of people on the basis of their nationality, skin colour, race, religion or sexual orientation, shall be fined or jailed for up to 2 years.”
As such, Pétur recently found himself on the receiving end of a court injunction for inciting hate speech, following remarks a caller made in regards to the LGBT community in Iceland. The Reykjavík District Court ultimately dismissed the case, which Pétur was quick to celebrate, declaring that the entire complaint had been “a political campaign” against him, most notably saying: “It is very bad when the justice system in Iceland is in the hands of political people who abuse the system for the sole purpose of trying to slam an individual who has opinions they don’t like.”
This remark is very telling in light of what would happen next.
Gunnar Waage, a blogger who runs the website Sandkassinn, regularly hands out a satirical award called “The Poop of the Month” to those individuals Gunnar deems worthy of being called a poop, i.e. a reprehensible person. One month, Pétur was bestowed this award. His response? He tried to sue someone who shared Gunnar Waage’s award post on Facebook—thus using the court system to slam someone whose opinions he doesn’t like.
Pétur’s complaint was also dismissed by the court, and he was made to pay for the accused’s legal costs. Icelandic courts have consistently ruled that opinions are protected under freedom of expression; accusations, especially of criminal activity, are not. And at the time of this writing, being a poop is not a crime. However, the case shows how Icelanders have a complicated relationship with freedom of expression.
For example: for as much as Iceland touts its liberal principles, we had blasphemy laws on the books until 2015, and people have been fined for blasphemy in the past (although this law was seldom enforced in modern times). Pétur is also far from the only person to have been charged with hate speech. Similar charges have been filed against conservative Christians such as Snorri Bertel and Jens Valur, who have been outspoken in their distaste for homosexuals and Muslims, respectively.
On social media, Icelanders seem to fall into two camps where these cases are concerned: those who absolutely support freedom of expression (most vocally, when it concerns the rights of bigots to be publicly bigoted; they tend to be all but silent when minorities speak up, oddly enough), and those who believe that hate speech is a real thing that amounts to bullying or violence against the marginalised. Calling hate speech “bullying” strikes a chord with many Icelanders; public schools have run concerted campaigns against bullying for many years now. How can we teach children to stand up against bullying, they say, when we allow adults to do it to each other? Countering this, free speech absolutists contend that critics are the ones who are bullying; that their criticisms and injunctions amount to silencing tactics and censorship.
Ultimately, this seems it will be something the courts will always have to decide on a case by case basis, where the legal world is concerned. In daily life, freedom of expression is demonstrably alive and well in Iceland: the freedom to say what you want, as well as the freedom of others to call you a poop for saying it.