Sweden's Got Problems, Too–Hateful Problems

not just meatballs, also xenophobia and suppression of free speechIt’s good to remember-for reasons both depressing and, in the misery-loves-company way, oddly comforting-that other countries struggle with the same issues America struggles with. Take Sweden, for instance, where a television station’s refusal to air a clearly racist television ad promoting an anti-immigrant political party has raised an interesting debate over censorship-and calls from neighboring Denmark for international election observers to monitor the September 19th vote. Here’s the ad, from the Sweden Democrats party.

It’s tricky. You want all political parties to have equal access to airtime in the run-up to an election. The Sweden Democrats, a right-wing conservative party, are open in their stance against Muslim immigrants. Regardless of whether or not you agree with them, shouldn’t they have a chance to argue for their position, and try to drum up votes, over the airwaves?

The television station, TV4, opted not to run the spot because they feared it would be in violation of Sweden’s laws against hate-speech. Political leaders on the left support the decision. Says Mona Sahlin, of Sweden’s Social Democrats party:

“The difference between freedom of speech and incitement to hatred against an ethnic group must be understood. What I saw in (the SD’s) attempt at a TV ad was incitement to hatred against an ethnic group.”

Per HultmangÃ¥rd, a lawyer at the Swedish Media Publishers’ Association, disagrees. He says:

“I cannot see how this would be hate speech. This is an election ad. The scope is wide for what one can say. They simply play on people’s fears. Legally, it is within the allowable framework.”

I don’t know whether I agree that election monitors are in order. (Maybe we should just INVADE SWEDEN!) And TV4 is a private company.

But I think I might come down on the side of the racists on this one. Not for their racism. And that ad is despicable. There’s a problem when a television station rejects political content in a preemptive attempt to interpret hate-speech laws, especially when those laws, like Swedens, are constituted as vaguely as “forbidding disrespect.” Hateful bigots should be able to say and display their hateful bigoted feelings about things, and the government should find ways of combating the potential harmful effect other than criminalizing words or images. As a theoretical position, I think societies have more to lose by squelching freedom of expression than we do by letting the crazies incite the other crazies. (What’s more? “For as long as I’ll live, I’ll never understand how people want to vest in the Government the power to criminalize particular viewpoints it dislikes,” is how Glenn Greenwald once put it.) I may disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it and all. Well, maybe not to the death. But, you know, I’ll definitely write a blog post about it.