Why, precisely, has Lars Hedegaard been convicted? Head of the Free Press Society – not quite as free as they’d imagined – he’s been fined DK 5,000 (around $1000) for issuing anti-Muslim comments to a blogger. What, though, has he been prosecuted for? Confirming the opinions of some idle Danish browsers? (And, perhaps, inspiring the disgust of their compatriots?) Clearly not. His comments were as influential as a, well – blogger’s.
I can grasp the argument for curbing the freedom of speech in times of horrifying discord. Is Danish society poised on the brink of conflict? Like the broadcasters who fuelled the hatreds of Rwanda were Hedegaard and others lighting the incendiaries of latent rage? Well, it was two years ago and I’ve not heard of any major Scandinavian civil wars. I suspect not.
So, is this an ideological conviction, based on publicly asserting the state’s intent to uphold values of cultural harmony? I can’t quite believe it – perhaps it’s a votewinner – but as its supporters are most likely to accept this rationale it’s worth considering. First, and with no great desire to rehash On Liberty, this contradicts all notions of free speech. I’m less sceptical of freedom than any other value, in part, perhaps, because it gives us the space in which to ponder them. Second, any “harmony” that has to be so rigidly policed is not harmonic. When, at school, you saw a teacher force two adversaries to apologise to one another did you look on it as an example of blissful kinship? It’s a surefire way to breed resentment and suspicion.
Third, it’s quite preposterous to see the state as a kind of schoolmaster who paces the aisles of our discourse, rapping at the knuckles of the snot-nosed shrimps who might disturb his order. No conservative or socialist, never mind liberal, wants to invest it with such an imposing mandate, surely.
It’d be a rotten thing if liberalism became more associated with statist authority than the pursuit of freedom. (Not a new distortion, no, but still a threatening one.) We’ve seen more and more arrests in the name of tolerance. (My recent favourite is the case of someone who was pulled in after singing “kung fu fighting” as a Chinese couple passed. Father Ted fans might see the joke.) Most aren’t prosecuted,and few get weighty sentences – though Sylvia Stolz was only just released, years after being imprisoned on the charge of Holocaust denial – but the principle is at stake. Or is it? No, in fact, that’s wrong: the principle has been lost. Let’s reclaim it. Free Lars Hedegaard! Or, at least, give him his money back.