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Finland Puts Free Speech on Trial

President Biden should speak forcefully to our friends in Finland and beyond who have forgotten that free speech must apply to all.
Kristen Waggoner
Finnish MP Dr. Päivi Räsänen faced an accusation of ‘hate speech’ for tweeting a picture of some Bible verses directed towards the national church of Finland.

A courageous leader once criticized the church hierarchy in Europe. That led to an interrogation, an investigation, and a public trial meant to intimidate all those who shared this leader’s beliefs.

No, that isn’t the story of Martin Luther. It’s the ongoing case of Päivi Räsänen, a former Finnish member of Parliament who is now being prosecuted by the state because she dared to speak her Christian views on sexuality. Her case is a modern-day heresy trial — and a harbinger for free speech in the Western world.

Päivi’s case began in 2019 when her church decided to sponsor a local Pride parade. As a Christian and a pastor’s wife, Päivi disagreed with that decision. So she openly questioned it on Twitter, and she included a Bible passage for reference. What came next reads like something out of the Inquisition: She faced a 13-hour police interrogation followed by a government investigation into her past public statements. Investigators dug up a 2004 church pamphlet she had authored on marriage and sexuality, as well as comments on a 2019 radio show. For those statements, Päivi was charged with three counts of “agitation against a minority group” — and a Lutheran bishop, Juhana Pohjola, was charged for publishing her pamphlet.

In the courtroom, it became clear that the state prosecutor’s issue wasn’t so much with Päivi as with the Bible itself. She proceeded to examine Päivi and the bishop over their theological views. She asked about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, why some texts are interpreted literally, and whether religious beliefs can change. More than once, the judge interrupted to ask why those questions were relevant.

Päivi and the bishop were eventually acquitted, with ADF International supporting their legal defense. In a unanimous decision, the court declared what should be obvious to all: “It is not for the district court to interpret biblical concepts.” But the state prosecutor, bent on making an example of Päivi, appealed the decision. A new trial is set to begin on August 31.

It’s hard to believe that a modern Western democracy is actively prosecuting someone for mere speech. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. It is part of a much broader trend of growing government censorship around the world. In recent years, non-Western countries have seen an uptick in “blasphemy” laws, making it illegal to speak views that could be perceived as blasphemous to a particular religion. This same principle is now at work in the West through so-called “hate speech” laws, which silence and punish those who disagree with the government’s ideology. This new version of censorship now blankets Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, placing a chilling effect on speech. America is one of the last nations still resisting this trend — but the more it spreads, the greater the pressures will be to enact censorship here.

That might explain why U.S. lawmakers are watching the case in Finland so closely. On Tuesday, members of Congress sent a letter to the U.S. ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, Rashad Hussain, voicing outrage at the Finnish government’s “egregious and harassing” prosecution of Päivi and Bishop Pohjola. They pointed out that this case represents a “selective targeting” of high-profile leaders that is “designed to systematically chill others’ speech.” And they warned that “a guilty verdict will only expedite” the arrival of censorship in the United States. For these reasons, they urged the Biden administration to speak out publicly on the case — something it has failed to do thus far.

U.S. presidents are accustomed to speaking out on human rights. In the 20th century, U.S. leaders waged a 50-year Cold War against communist ideology. The most successful Cold Warriors, such as President Reagan, recognized that it was essential to speak out against Soviet human-rights failures while letting the example of our own society shine as an alternative. That prophetic criticism was not only felt by Soviet authorities. It was also overheard by the Soviet people and helped shape world opinion in favor of freedom.

Today, the Soviet threat is gone, but the emerging threats to freedom now hit much closer to home. Government censorship has invaded our own cul-de-sac — the very countries that sided with us in the Cold War. Our allies, who so proudly stood with us against communism, are forgetting what freedom is. Now is a critical moment to contain the spread of censorship in the West. With Päivi soon to face trial, President Biden should speak forcefully to our friends in Finland and beyond who have forgotten that free speech must apply to all — even those whose views some might find offensive. As Päivi herself said, “If free speech is not for everybody, then it’s for nobody.”

KW Headshot
Kristen Waggoner
CEO, President, and General Counsel
As the CEO, president, and general counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom, Kristen Waggoner leads the faith-based organization in advancing the God-given right to live and speak the truth in the U.S. and around the world.