Across the world, the freedom of speech is recognized as one of the most fundamental human rights. All major human rights treaties protect this freedom, and every democratic society is reliant on the ability of its citizens to speak freely. As a democratic country, Finland claims to protect free speech. But its prosecutor general has spent years doing the opposite.
Free speech in Finland
Finland is generally considered to be one of the freest countries in the world. Section 12 of Finland’s Constitution guarantees the freedom of expression for “everyone,” which protects the rights of all people “to express, disseminate and receive information, opinions and other communications without prior prevention by anyone.”
In addition, Finland has signed the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Article 10 of the Convention states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.” These protections are supposed to ensure the right of everyone to express their beliefs freely.
The stated protections for free speech and other human rights have led Freedom House, an organization that measures political rights and civil liberties, to give Finland a perfect 100 out of 100 “freedom score” in 2022. The score suggests Finland is even freer than the United States, which Freedom House scored an 83 out of 100.
But despite these lofty promises, Finnish officials have blatantly attacked free speech. There is no clearer example of this fact than the actions taken by the country’s own prosecutor general against Dr. Päivi Räsänen.
Who is Dr. Päivi Räsänen?
Dr. Päivi Räsänen is a medical doctor and elected official in Finland. She has served as a member of the Finnish Parliament since 1995, and she was the chair of the Christian Democratic Party from 2004-2015. In addition, Dr. Räsänen served as Minister of the Interior from 2011 to 2015. She has five children and 11 grandchildren, and her Christian faith is a large part of her life.
Dr. Räsänen is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. In 2019, she posted a tweet questioning her church’s official partnership with the LGBT event “Pride 2019,” including a picture of some Bible verses. But this simple expression of her beliefs soon caused Dr. Räsänen to face criminal charges.
What happened to Dr. Päivi Räsänen?
As a result of her post questioning her church’s promotion of an LGBT event, Dr. Räsänen was accused of “hate speech.” Even though the tweet remains published on Twitter because it did not violate the platform’s own “hate speech” rules, Finland’s prosecutor general started pursuing criminal charges against Dr. Räsänen.
A few months after the tweet was posted, authorities opened an investigation into whether it constituted a crime of “ethnic agitation.” Section 10 of the Criminal Code of Finland says a person can be charged with “agitation against a minority group” if they spread “an expression of opinion or another message where a certain group is threatened, defamed or insulted on the basis of its race, skin color, birth status, national or ethnic origin, religion or belief, sexual orientation or disability or a comparable basis.”
Dr. Räsänen never disparaged anyone. She simply questioned whether her church’s embrace of an LGBT event was consistent with biblical teaching, which is her right. This free speech must be protected, especially in a country that prides itself on freedom. Instead, the prosecutor general sought to punish Dr. Räsänen for her beliefs.
Three days after authorities opened their initial investigation into the tweet, the prosecutor general requested investigations into a pamphlet Dr. Räsänen had written in 2004 regarding her church’s teaching on human sexuality. This investigation also led to a criminal charge against the Rev. Dr. Juhana Pohjola, chairman of the International Lutheran Council, for publishing the pamphlet.
In April 2021, Finland’s prosecutor general brought three criminal charges against Dr. Räsänen—one for the 2004 pamphlet, one for the 2019 tweet, and a third for engaging in a debate about human sexuality on a 2019 live radio debate.
“I cannot accept that voicing my religious beliefs could mean imprisonment,” Dr. Räsänen said following the charges. “I do not consider myself guilty of threatening, slandering, or insulting anyone. My statements were all based on the Bible’s teachings on marriage and sexuality. I will defend my right to confess my faith, so that no one else would be deprived of their right to freedom of religion and speech.”
Victory for free speech at the district court
ADF International supported the defense of both Dr. Päivi Räsänen and Bishop Juhana Pohjola at a district court in Helsinki. In a unanimous ruling in March 2022, the court dismissed all charges against them. The court found in the ruling that it was “not for the district court to interpret biblical concepts,” and it ordered the prosecution to pay more than 60,000 Euros in legal costs. Dr. Räsänen responded with relief after the district court’s ruling in favor of free speech.
“I am so grateful the court recognized the threat to free speech and ruled in our favor,” she said. “I feel a weight has been lifted off my shoulders after being acquitted. Although I am grateful for having had this chance to stand up for freedom of speech, I hope that this ruling will help prevent others from having to go through the same ordeal.”
But Finland’s prosecutor general did not allow the case to end there.
How the prosecutor general dragged out the case
Since the district court unanimously ruled to dismiss all charges, it should have been clear that the prosecutor general had no real case against Dr. Räsänen or Bishop Pohjola. In addition, police strongly recommended against prosecution in the first place. But instead of accepting the clear ruling, Finland’s prosecutor general decided to drag criminal proceedings against Dr. Räsänen and Bishop Pohjola into a fourth year.
In April 2022, the prosecutor general officially filed her appeal of the district court’s decision. She continued to seek tens of thousands of Euros in fines from Dr. Räsänen and Bishop Pohjola, and she demanded that their publications be censored—which would be another clear violation of the freedom of speech.
The appeals court rules
On Nov. 14, 2023, the Helsinki Court of Appeal issued its ruling in Dr. Räsänen’s case, once again unanimously acquitting her and the bishop of all the criminal charges brought against them.
“At the heart of the prosecutor’s examination of Räsänen was this: Would she recant her beliefs? The answer was no—she would not deny the teachings of her faith,” said ADF International Executive Director Paul Coleman, who serves on Dr. Räsänen’s legal team. “The cross-examination bore all the resemblance of a ‘heresy’ trial of the Middle Ages; it was implied that Räsänen had ‘blasphemed’ against the dominant orthodoxies of the day.”
The court has ordered the prosecution to pay tens of thousands in legal fees to cover costs incurred by both defendants. The prosecution could appeal a final time to the Supreme Court, with a deadline of Jan. 15, 2024.
Free speech is an integral part of any democratic society. Everyone should be free to express their own beliefs without fear of government punishment or censorship.
While Finland claims to protect free speech, it prosecuted two of its citizens simply for sharing their beliefs. And by dragging out the case, the country’s prosecutor general used the legal process to punish Dr. Räsänen for her views. While the appeals court’s ruling is a victory worth celebrating, speech will not be free in Finland until prosecutors stop using vague allegations of “hate speech” to target citizens for peacefully voicing their beliefs.
These sorts of attacks on free speech cannot be allowed to stand. No one should have to spend years in court for expressing their beliefs. If biblical truths can come under attack in Finland, they can come under attack in other countries, too.
Dr. Räsänen’s case is a stark reminder of the rising tide of censorship across the globe, but it’s also a reminder that free speech for all is a winning proposition. That’s why we must continue defending and pursuing laws that explicitly protect free speech around the world.