Straight, No Chaser: Free speech or hate speak?

Spring has sprung and along with the nice weather we have seen Rasmus Paludan – self-styled ‘soldier of freedom’, ‘protector of the weak’, ‘guardian of society’, ‘light of the Danes’ and leader of Stram Kurs (Hard Line) party – in full cry.

This trained lawyer tours Denmark staging demonstrations in primarily immigrant areas, burns or defaces copies of the Koran, and delivers outrageously offensive statements about Muslims and immigrants.

To the barricades!
Paludan insists he is exercising his freedom of speech rights as enshrined in the Danish constitution and anyone who doesn’t like it is anti-democratic or has no sense of humour.

But before succumbing to the arguments of this latter-day Voltaire, remember that right-wing populists who claim to be concerned with the protection of free speech seem basically only interested in one thing: the right to insult minorities – and Muslims in particular.

Additionally, Paludan’s demos leave riots, tear-gas, property damage and a massive bill for police protection in their wake. Justice Ministry figures reveal the 17 so far held in 2019 have cost the taxpayer 6 million kroner and, if we also count the 53 in 2018, the total rises to 24 million kroner.

A sick joke
These events are filmed, edited and released on his YouTube channel and receive thousands of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ – especially from young people.

A lot of these youthful supporters seem to regard Paludan primarily as entertainment – a great joke, a breath of fresh air compared to boring old ‘normal’ politicians. But some are of voting age.
Astute campaigning on the back of his social media success, plus massive publicity for a recent ‘event’ on Nørrebro’s Blågårds Plads that turned into a full-scale riot, has enabled Paludan to collect enough signatures to stand for Parliament. Ignore him at your peril.

Almost a year and a half ago another non-politician with a grossly offensive line on immigrants – prone to wild exaggerations, downright lies, contempt for the established press and oafish behaviour towards women – was elected leader of the world’s biggest superpower. That probably seemed a bit of a lark at the time to some, but the joke has worn completely threadbare.

‘Can’ not ‘must’
In a recent TV interview Justice Minister Søren Pape Poulsen urged people to ignore the provocateur. If nobody takes the bait and turns up he will just disappear, was the message.But is it that simple and, besides, what constitutes ‘freedom of speech’ as we understand it today? Are there – and should there be – any limits at all?

Back in 2005 Denmark had a seriously bruising brush with this dilemma over the ‘Mohammed Cartoons’ published in Jyllands-Posten newspaper, and the fall-out is still with us today.

In the US, the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but over the years there have been a number of legal challenges. For example, Supreme Court verdicts say that it does not give people the right to incite actions that would harm others. On the other hand, you do have the right to use certain offensive words and phrases to convey political messages.

So it is well to remember that just because you are allowed to say what you like about a person’s religion, it doesn’t mean you always have to exercise that right.