Blasphemy Law Abolished in Iceland & Freedom of Speech

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Yesterday, the parliament of Iceland agreed to abolish the blasphemy provision of the Criminal Code. The Pirate Party’s parliamentarians submitted the proposal back in January, and it received broad support from all of the other political parties in Parliament and the matter was unanimously supported by the committee examining the proposal. Icelanders have now taken an important step in guaranteeing human rights and joined other nations which respect freedom of speech and expression.

Image from http://one-europe.info/

The bill was supported extensively by Sidmennt (The Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association), the bishop of Iceland, the Icelandic priesthood, the Association of Publishers, PEN Iceland, IMMI (The International Modern Media Institute) an Icelandic based international organisation of information and freedom of expression and an atheist group called Vantrú.

The bill follows criticism by various international institutions such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe and the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe which specifically concluded that countries should abolish the blasphemy provisions in their laws.

Sidmennt’s comments to Parliament on this bill included the following:

Often, countries where there is a lack of democracy and freedom are criticized for punishing people for blasphemy even with death sentences. When those countries are criticized, their spokespeople frequently point out, correctly, that similar laws are in force in “Western” democracies. Therefore, it sends a vital message to the rest of the world if Iceland has repealed its blasphemy law. Nations which maintain blasphemy laws with serious consequences should not be able to point to Iceland and say that it has the same kind of law.”

— Sidmennt (The Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association)

Sidmennt celebrates the fact that parliamentarians from all parties have supported broadening human rights. It should be noted that there are provisions in the Icelandic Criminal Code against hate speech so that protection against that is still guaranteed.

So, what is freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech is one of the most fundamental rights someone can have. Here in Spain, the subject is under much discussion following the controversial Ley de mordaza that came into effect this month.

However, there has been a lot of confusion and misunderstanding as to what freedom of speech does and doesn’t mean in practice.

So before you decide to start gobbing off at someone that you have a right to your speech, it’s a good idea to make sure you know what you’re talking about.

Freedom of Speech is A Political Right

Freedom of speech means that the government will not restrict a person’s speech simply because it doesn’t want to hear what that person has to say.

Most western governments cannot, for instance, imprison members of a peaceful protest simply for speaking out against government policies (or at least that’s the way it’s supposed to work).

That is a very good thing, and it’s a relatively recent historical development. If you watch the news, you will know how many people in the world still can’t freely criticise their governments.

However, it’s very important to remember that freedom of speech doesn’t extend to all aspects of your life; it doesn’t mean anyone has to listen to you, and it doesn’t mean you can say whatever you want.

Basically, freedom of speech only applies to government enforcement. That means that if someone is in a bar and decides to start talking loudly about how the government’s new immigration policies are wrong; the owner is perfectly within their rights to chuck that person out. Other customers can ignore the speaker, or even scorn disdainfully. There’s no guarantee that anyone will care what you have to say, or freedom from being ridiculed.

There are also areas of legally restricted speech. While the government cannot restrict you on purely political grounds, it can restrict certain forms of speech it considers a genuine danger, e.g. “hate speech,” which might incite violence against certain groups of people.

The main point is that you can’t turn your words into weapons. Once you do that you’ve stopped expressing your right to free speech and started infringing on the rights of others.