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

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.

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

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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Opinion: Are we about to have another ‘free speech’ debate in Denmark? If so, I’ll pass

The debate about Danish free speech looks set to make an appearance for the umpteenth time.

Opinion: Are we about to have another 'free speech' debate in Denmark? If so, I’ll pass
Pernille Vermund has defended her use of the ethnic slur 'perker'. File photo: Niels Christian Vilmann/Ritzau Scanpix

On Wednesday, sections of the country and its social media were up in arms after Pernille Vermund, leader of the stridently anti-immigration, right-wing Nye Borgerlige party, used the word perker – the Danish language’s quintessential ethnic slur – in a television documentary.

READ ALSO: Danish party leader uses ethnic slur in TV documentary

Vermund subsequently doubled down on the remark, saying “I don't regret it. Let's call things what they are. If you're a negro, you're a negro; if you're a perker, you're a perker, if you're an immigrant, you're an immigrant”. 

Understandably, that got a reaction.

Natasha al-Hariri, director of the youth organization of the Danish Refugee Council, has called for a broad rejection of Vermund’s sentiments.

“Should we not show the 400,000 people in Denmark who could be considered ‘perkere’ that we don’t accept this type of derisory, racist remark? It would actually be nice if someone bothered,” al-Hariri tweeted.

She is of course completely correct, and as a target of such abuse has a lot more authority to speak on it than I do.

Politicians including Sikandar Siddique, immigration spokesperson with the environmentalist Alternative party, and Social Liberal deputy leader Sofie Carsten Nielsen have in fact spoken out against Vermund and to support al-Hariri’s view.

We’ve been here before though, and the next steps are clear.

Vermund or a like-minded high-profile person will say she can say use the word or any other word she wishes to because in Denmark there is free speech, and that will never be curbed by any kind of censorship.

The 2005 Mohammed cartoons, still a high water mark for Danish cultural tunnel vision, and multiple defences of the use of other words with overtones of racial prejudice –neger is the primary example – provide the precedents for where we’re headed here.


It’s fine, goes the logic, to be politically incorrect and say or do something which has an othering effect on a large segment of your own society, because free speech.

Even if it makes your advanced, stable, pragmatic democracy seem like a tribute act to 19th century parochialism, that’s okay. Because free speech.

I get it. Denmark has free speech. Nothing is sacred. You can make distasteful jokes and laugh at inappropriate things. I’m all for that, it’s part of the honest, straightforward mentality that makes Denmark unique.

It’s not an excuse to piss people off for the sake of it. That is what Vermund is doing here and what Rasmus Paludan, the leader of a far-right group which, unlike Vermund's, was rejected by the electorate, was prepared to go to far more extreme lengths to achieve.

After making an unprovoked verbal attack on your chosen target community, you can then invoke free speech, make yourself a victim of political correctness and censorship, and use that to try and drive a wedge down the middle of the population.

We’ve seen the long term outcome of that kind of thing in other Western democracies which I won’t mention here (okay, maybe I will).

Last week did indeed see unpleasant opposing demonstrations in Copenhagen between an Islamophobic organization and counter protestors. But Denmark is too pragmatic overall and its political system too sensible and consensus-driven for it to go down the route of the US or UK.

Furthermore, the country is stable and, while of course far from perfect, doesn’t have societal ills of a requisite magnitude that they can convincingly be blamed on any particular segment, either fairly or unfairly.

So retrograde, racially divisive language must instead by justified by the ‘Denmark has free speech’ argument.

MPs and anyone else using this kind of language in the public debate should realize that what they’re doing is not plain talking. It’s plain embarrassing, for them and for Denmark.