In 2019, Päivi Räsänen did what any one of us might do — she tweeted at her church. Her tweet was simple and peaceful. She questioned the choice to sponsor a local pride parade. She questioned, was this befitting of their Christian faith? And she attached a scripture passage to the tweet.
Räsänen will be headed to court for the second time on criminal charges of “hate speech.” This longstanding member of the Finnish Parliament, medical doctor, and grandmother has faced onerous prosecution for four years at the hands of Finland’s government for a tweet.
Subjected to 13 hours of police interrogation, authorities dug into her past, charging her with three counts of “agitation against a minority group” for the tweet, in addition to a 2004 church pamphlet and 2019 radio appearance. Bishop Juhana Pohjola of Finland’s Evangelical Lutheran Church also was criminally charged for publishing the pamphlet, which discusses a Biblical-based understanding of marriage and human sexuality. Their charges carried with them tens of thousands of euros in fines and even the possibility of a two-year prison sentence.
In March of last year, the Helsinki District Court delivered a unanimous acquittal, stating clearly that, “it is not for the district court to interpret biblical concepts.” However, the law in Finland allows for legal double jeopardy — prosecutors can appeal all the way to the Supreme Court on the mere basis of dissatisfaction with the verdict. On Aug. 31, Räsänen and the bishop will be back in court once again. Their legal defense is supported by ADF International.
Without free speech, there can be no freedom, and the enormous implications of this case for fundamental freedoms have triggered international outrage. Finland, regularly ranked as the “happiest” country on Earth, is known as a stable bastion of European democracy. If this can happen there, then we must all beware.
On Aug. 8, 16 U.S. members of Congress, sent a letter to Rashad Hussain, U.S. ambassador–at–large for international religious freedom, and Douglas Hickey, U.S. ambassador to Finland, in response to Räsänen’s “egregious and harassing” prosecution. The letter highlights the severity of what’s at stake: “This prosecutor is dead set on weaponizing the power of Finland’s legal system to silence not just a member of parliament and Lutheran bishop but millions of Finnish Christians who dare to exercise their natural rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion in the public square.”
Free speech is a preeminent American value, but also one well-protected in international law. The U.S. should always stand against the criminalization of peaceful expression and especially should raise concerns when violations of free speech occur in countries we view as allies, especially on human rights. As the legislators’ letter states, “No American, no Fin, and no human should face legal harassment for simply living out their religious beliefs.”
Now is the time for the Biden administration to speak out loud and clear. While the administration has acknowledged that it has privately raised concerns over Räsänen’s case with the Finnish government, it is vitally important that the U.S. government take a public stance in defense of free speech so under threat in this case.
With regard to Räsänen’s case, the legislators’ letter makes clear, “The selective targeting of these high-profile individuals is designed to systematically chill others’ speech under the threat of legal harassment and social astigmatism.” Historically, the U.S. has been the strongest bulwark against international violations of freedom of speech. In standing up for Räsänen, the U.S. government would in turn send a signal that it is standing up for the right of every person who feels the rapidly encroaching winds of censorship.