Americans whose memory of public events goes back more than a news cycle or two may recall Terry Jones, a previously obscure Gainesville, Florida, preacher whose announcement in 2010 of a plan to burn copies of the Koran drew public condemnations from then President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the top US military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates phoned Jones personally and asked him not to go ahead with the burning.
Jones did not escape legal consequences for these actions. In 2011 he was jailed for a few hours in Dearborn, Michigan, by authorities worried about the possible consequences of his planned participation in an anti-Islam rally, but the ACLU took his side and a county court ruling upheld his First Amendment rights. He was fined $271 in 2012 for violating Gainesville’s fire safety rules. A planned mass burning of Korans on September 11, 2013, resulted in an arrest for transporting fuel, but this verdict was overturned by a circuit court judge. In short, although high-ranking federal officials from the president on down were concerned about Jones’s activities, and although some local officials overreached in their efforts to squelch his plans, the courts ultimately protected his rights.
Fast forward to Norway in 2019. On November 16, at a protest in a public square in Kristiansand, a group called Stopp Islamisering av Norge (“Stop the Islamization of Norway” – SIAN) set fire to a copy of the Koran in a garbage can. At least thirty police officers were present, and put out the fire within a few seconds. After the incident, Marie Benedicte Bjørnland, director of the national police, told the media that representatives of her department had been in contact with SIAN before the gathering and had warned that if SIAN tried to burn a Koran, they would stop it. Their argument was that such an action could be seen as violating “clause 185.”
What is “clause 185”? Known informally as the “racism clause,” it prescribes up to three years behind bars for saying something “discriminatory or hateful,” or displaying a symbol of hate or discrimination. Clause 185 punishes threats, harassment, or encouraging contempt of others on the basis of skin color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or disability. A campaign is currently underway to eliminate the clause because it violates freedom of expression and because its language is so vague and subjective. But despite the widespread opposition to this sweeping piece of legislation, Norway’s director of police, Marie Benedicte Bjørnland, has now stated, in response to the Kristiansand incident, that in addition to everything else it forbids, it also prohibits “the desecration of religious symbols.” Or, as commentator Nina Hjerpset-Østlie put it, it is now illegal “to burn your own books.” Which, she added means that although Norway’s longstanding blasphemy law was taken off the books four years ago, Bjørnland has, in effect, reinstated it.
Jon Wessel-Aas, a prominent lawyer, was not buying it. He called Bjørnland’s one-woman revision of the racism clause “at best prior restraint of an illegal utterance,” and at worst “prior restraint of a legal utterance.” Both forms of restraint, he noted, are unconstitutional. Eivind Smith, a professor of law at the University of Oslo, was not comfortable with Bjørnland’s high-handedness either. But who, in a position of authority, was paying attention?
No matter whom you listened to, the inviolability of the Koran seemed to matter more than the authority of the Constitution. In defense of Bjørnland’s novel interpretation of criminal law, Martin Bernsen, a senior official of the PST, the agency in charge of Norway’s national security, argued that burning copies of the Koran can trigger acts of violence. Under this kind of logic, of course – the so-called heckler’s veto – any statement or action whatsoever that just might antagonize violence-prone Muslims should presumably be treated as illegal, whereas burning, say, any number of copies of the Talmud or Bible is no problem, since Jews and Christians are not in the habit of responding to such actions with mass acts of savage bloodshed.
Some Norwegian officials argued that setting the Koran, or anything, on fire in public represents so great a practical risk – somebody might get singed – that it justifies immediate police action; never mind that this is a country where the usual means of expressing widely held public opinion about anything is to organize a torchlight procession in which hundreds or thousands of people, some of them small children, carry large flaming objects for blocks at a time down busy city streets before forming a tight crowd outside a public building and holding the flames aloft while listening to speeches.
The newspaper Utrop editorialized that the SIAN protest should not have been permitted in the first place. As for the mayor of Kristiansand, he was upset that the cops did not step in earlier and keep the copy of the Koran intact. This was, in fact, what they were supposed to have done: as a November 20 article at Filter Nyheter revealed, the police in Kristiansand were under direct, explicit, and secret orders from Bjørnland to try to protect any copies of the Koran from being set on fire at the SIAN demo. In an interview with Filter Nyheter, Bjørnland actually stated that while Norwegians enjoy freedom of speech and assembly, there are limits to those rights. Indeed, pronounced Bjørnland, for the police to be too eager in their protection of these freedoms can be “counterproductive.” She went on to describe herself and her department as striking a “balance” between protecting and limiting those rights. “We are not a Thought Police,” she maintained, “but we do issue guidelines, and when we see violations of our guidelines, we intervene.” Puzzle over that one, if you will.