Why Denmark’s commitment to free speech is not a free pass for Quran burning

Michael Barrett
Michael Barrett - [email protected]
Why Denmark’s commitment to free speech is not a free pass for Quran burning
Police pass burned-out cars in Nørrebro, Copenhagen on Monday. Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of Danish society and everyone has a right to it. But it doesn’t make minorities fair game for provocation.


Recent days have seen serious social unrest in Copenhagen, particularly around the Nørrebro neighbourhood, and in outlying district Albertslund.

In both areas, police have intervened in planned demonstrations led by Rasmus Paludan, an extremist right-wing agitator with a criminal record under anti-racism laws, whose demonstrations feature burning the Quran in areas with sizeable minority ethnic communities.

Angry counter-demonstrators have reacted by burning cars and waste containers, throwing cobblestones at police and creating an atmosphere of tension and insecurity. Dozens of arrests have been made.

On Tuesday morning, police announced that further demonstrations by Paludan would not be permitted in specified areas of the city until 12pm on Wednesday, citing a “risk to public peace”. The ban was later extended to April 23rd.

“Specifically, our assessment is that (demonstrations) would constitute a high risk of further criminal behaviour in the form of arson, vandalism and violence against police,” a Copenhagen Police statement read.

“(We) have naturally taken into account the constitutional right to free speech and freedom of assembly in our overall assessment of this matter,” the statement continued, noting that alternative locations or times could be considered for demonstrations by Paludan and his followers.

In an interview with public service broadcaster DR on Monday, head of the Danish Police Union (Politiforbundet) Claus Oxfeldt said that the situation had “begun to develop into a farce”.

“By that, I mean we are spending a lot of time on one man and his way of acting in a democracy,” Oxfeldt continued, with reference to the police resources currently being focused on the demonstrations and violent reactions to them.

“It would be best if we were just able to ignore these demonstrations. That’s why I’ve waited until today to say something,” he said to DR on Monday.

Tyge Trier, a lawyer who specializes in freedom of speech and human rights, told news agency Ritzau that the free speech provided for by Denmark’s constitution and by EU law does not give agitators the right to repeatedly conduct actions such as burning the Quran or spraying urine on it. Both have previously featured in Paludan’s demonstrations.

“Several times we have seen the understanding that if you say this is about free speech, you have the right to carry out acts like this and the right for police to be there,” Trier said.

“But my assessment is that there is no right to (repeatedly) conduct these actions within short spaces of time in densely-populate areas where, for example, many practising Muslims live,” he said.

Denmark’s constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights both provide for freedom of speech and freedom to gather in a public place.

But Trier said the idea that this makes expression completely unrestricted is a misunderstanding.

The lawyer noted a series of precedents in cases from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, in which the right to free speech was not recognized as justifying cases where homophobia, Islamophobia or Holocaust denial were expressed in public.

“This is clearly a very difficult legal area, because some very important elements of the Rule of Law are at play,” he told Ritzau.

“But my assessment would be that police have legal grounds to say that such an action [as Quran burning, ed.] is unwanted. Police have probably been careful here and given (Paludan) a long leash,” he said.

Trier stressed that Paludan still had the right to disseminate his views, regardless of their extremeness.

“He can’t be cut out in a way that prevents his points of view from coming out. But he has many channels, so it’s okay to limit this one,” the lawyer said. Paludan has also spread his views via a YouTube channel.

The lawyer said that he did not support re-introduction of Denmark’s anti-blasphemy laws, which were abolished in 2017.

Neither does he support criminal prosecution of Paludan for burning the Quran.

“Freedom of speech is completely central to our society, but burning the Quran in the face of people, for example in a housing estate, can be limited legally,” he said to Ritzau.

In his interview with DR, Oxfeldt appeared to express a similar view.

“There must be a political assessment of the way we communicate and demonstrate in Denmark. Has the constitution moved from the situation we know today? Can you shout your way to stealing police time?”, he said.

The head of the Danish Police Union rejected the suggestion free speech should be limited.

“That is not my agenda at all. Yes, we have free speech, but we are not obliged to express ourselves in all contexts. It’s okay to think about other people and take them into consideration. That applies to the police, and it absolutely applies to the public too,” he said.

READ ALSO: Copenhagen police arrest 15 in unrest following demo by far-right agitator



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