From Iceland — Harsh Words: Proposed Changes To Hate Speech Laws Slammed

Harsh Words: Proposed Changes To Hate Speech Laws Slammed

Published August 8, 2019

Josie Gaitens
Photo by
Art Bicnick

The Icelandic government has been strongly criticised by a leading academic at the University of Akureyri for proposed plans to relax existing hate speech laws. Eyrún Eyþórsdóttir, who previously held a position with the Reykjavík Metropolitan Police as a specialist detective inspector investigating hate crimes, has said the current approach has “created a society where people find [hate speech] acceptable.”

She also warns that further loosening of the laws—to whit, the proposed addition of a requirement that to be classified as hate speech, a statement must contain a threat of violence—runs the risk of exacerbating the problem. “It’s becoming more and more common for people to put out hate speech or speech with very negative connotations to minority groups,” she said.

An Unworkable System

However, Eyrún acknowledges why the working group responsible for the proposed law changes considers the current system untenable. “A lot of the individuals that have been charged and sentenced because of hate speech in the Nordic countries are not people who belong to hate groups,” she explains. “So the politicians claim that it doesn’t do justice to go after these people, because these people are not the main problem.”

“A kind of society has now been created where hate speech is made out not to be very serious.”

But the research that Eyrún has been working on shows otherwise. “We always have to look at the big picture. Even though the main problem might not be hate groups or neo-Nazi groups putting out hate speech, a kind of society has now been created where this kind of thing has been made out to be not as serious as it is. It is looked at as just people putting forward their opinions. I think if our society agrees upon this, then there will be more and more hate speech, with really horrible conclusions for the people who are being targeted.”

Zero tolerance

Icelandic hate speech laws, which are covered by Article 233(a) of the General Penal Code currently state “Anyone who does by means of ridicule, calumniation, insult, threat or otherwise assault [a person or group of persons] on account of their nationality, colour, [race, religion or sexual inclination] shall be subject to fines or imprisonment for up to two years.”

The law has been in place since 1973, but only a handful of cases have ever been brought to court. The proposed changes would add an additional requirement of the perpetrator threatening violence or harm to the targeted group or individuals before they can be charged with hate speech.

Eyrún thinks that much wider work must be done across society to educate people about hate speech before reductions in incidences will be seen. During her time within the police force, Eyrún was subjected to threats and abuse while investigating cases, which came from both members of the public and in some cases from Alþingi politicians. She says that there needs to be a “zero tolerance” approach to hate speech from political representatives going forward.

“We are a small nation,” she finishes. “We all want to live in a peaceful country, because that’s the country that can most guarantee security and prosperity for the people living here. And I think we should speak about it that way.”

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