Throughout the two-year history of the Massachusetts case in which a young woman was charged with involuntary manslaughter for encouraging her boyfriend to commit suicide, there was a nationwide discussion of the implications of the case for free speech under the Constitution’s First Amendment.
The curious case of Lars Hedegaard
Only actions, not words, can break bones. People can, however, be just as badly damaged by hateful things said about them. So why should not the criminal law be made to protect people as much from malicious words as from physical assault?
I raise this question in light of a common reaction that I have discerned among several North American commentators to news of the recent acquittal by the Danish Supreme Court on hate crime charges of free-speech campaigner Lars Hedegaard.
Hedegaard had incurred these charges as result of having made some disparaging remarks about Muslims in an interview with a journalist who subsequently published them verbatim. After being earlier found guilty under an article in Denmark’s criminal code that makes it a criminal offence to publish insulting remarks about people on account of their religion, Hedegaard was two weeks ago eventually acquitted on a technicality.
The seven Supreme Court judges who heard Hedegaard’s case unanimously accepted the plea of his counsel that his offensive remarks had not been intended for public consumption, and that, had be been shown an advance copy of where they were quoted, he would have ensured they were suitably amended to prevent any possible misconstrual of them as insulting to Muslims.
Although pleased by the acquittal, several American commentators have deplored the fact that anyone could possibly face criminal charges on account of such a statute as had brought Hedegaard to trial, and which are now common throughout Europe as well as much else of the western world.