INTERVIEW - Burning of holy books could be criminalized without major free speech impact: Danish law expert

INTERVIEW - Burning of holy books could be criminalized without major free speech impact: Danish law expert

Banning burnings of Quran, other holy books an ‘acceptable infringement’ on freedom of speech, says legal scholar

By Ebad Ahmed

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AA) – Denmark has legal options to ban Quran burnings in the country “without any profound limitations on freedom of speech,” according to a prominent Danish law scholar.

Along with neighboring Sweden, Denmark has been at the center of the ongoing wave of attacks on the Muslim holy book in Europe, prompting the government to issue statements trying to distance itself from the incidents, and also hinting at possible legal changes to prevent them.

The government has said it remains open to exploring legal means to intervene in situations where other countries, cultures and religions are demeaned, but any such measures would only be “within the framework of the constitutionally protected freedom of expression.”

For Sten Schaumburg-Muller, a law professor at the University of Southern Denmark, any steps to outlaw public burnings of the Quran or other holy books would be an “acceptable infringement” on freedom of speech.

This would be “a minor restriction of freedom of speech” that would allow Denmark to protect “religious feelings,” he told Anadolu.

Following are excerpts from the interview:

Question: In relation to the Quran burnings, there seems to be an ideological divide within Danish political forces. There is an argument recently put forward by opposition parties that such protests should be allowed under the pretext of freedom of speech. What is your opinion?

Sten Schaumburg-Muller: My assessment is that prohibition of burning of the Quran or other holy books is an infringement of freedom of speech. Not a big one, but it’s an infringement nevertheless.

Second, it’s an acceptable infringement. We have quite a few of them, according to Danish law, in other sections of the penal code, like any other country in the world.

No country in the world has absolute freedom of speech. There are always limitations.

I could just mention a few examples (for Denmark). You’re not allowed to pass on very private information or pictures, you’re not, according to Danish law, allowed to make gross defamation of groups belonging to a special race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and those kinds of things.

We do have quite a few prohibitions … and I think that is, by and large, a fair balance.

Then there is the question whether we should have restrictions on burning of the Quran. And I think, yes. One, it’s perfectly within freedom of speech. It’s a minor restriction. It’s a good restriction.

I don’t agree with burning of books at all. Secondly, I don’t agree with scorning other people’s religions.

I think that we should be able to discuss. Maybe we disagree on issues … which is fine. That’s core freedom of speech.

But then when it comes to burning of the Quran or the Bible … it’s a minor restriction of freedom of speech … with which we can protect, to some extent, religious feelings.

Q: Do you think Islamophobia plays a role in these incidents?

Schaumburg-Muller: There is a certain degree of Islamophobia, that is for sure.

I am a little bit sceptic on the concept of Islamophobia but, on the other hand, I see it.

Like the most famous Quran burner, Rasmus Paludan, it’s not like he’s insane … he knows what he’s doing.

So, there’s some animosity towards Islam, I think that’s obvious.

Q: As a lawyer, what steps do you think the Danish government can take?

Schaumburg-Muller: Burning of holy books in public places could be criminalized. Why should we have burnings? … I think we could easily do that without having any profound limitations on freedom of speech.

People are still most welcome to say they disagree (with the teachings of holy books) … that’s fine.

The public burnings could, I think, easily be criminalized. Yes, in principle, it’s an infringement on freedom of speech, but it’s definitely an acceptable infringement.

If you look at the European Convention on Human Rights, in Article 10, there’s freedom of speech in Section 1 and then Section 2 says you can make limitations if it’s done by (the) law … democratically.

Two, it has to follow a legitimate aim, which it does, and thirdly it should be necessary in a democratic society.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a good thing to limit discussions, because that’s not necessary in a democratic society, but limiting burnings, yes, that’s fine.

It doesn’t go to any core of freedom of speech.

Q: The Danish government has said there could be restrictions under certain circumstances. What is your opinion on that idea?

Schaumburg-Muller: Making the prohibition work in only special circumstances, I think that’s questionable.

If you cannot do it 500 yards, half a mile from embassies, what about … let’s say there is a group of Muslims living somewhere, could you do it then where they live?

My opinion would be it’s better to say we don’t want this done publicly. What you do at home, we don’t care.

You don’t get into questions of policing in special situations. I disagree with that part of the suggestion.

Don’t narrow it down to in front of embassies, that will make it quite difficult.

At a time when the police use a lot of money on protection, at a time when they are understaffed, couldn’t we use our resources more wisely? It is a waste of money. In fact, a stupid way to spend money.

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