Norway’s Supreme Court has convicted two Norwegians for publishing online expressions of what the court ruled was hatred towards another person. The landmark case sets new legal precedent regarding what kinds of comments can fall under Norwegian law aimed at fending off racism.
Newspaper Aftenposten has reported that the ruling also sets new limits over what’s deemed illegally hateful and racist and what’s allowed under Norway’s constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression. It covers two cases that involve comments publised on the social media platform Facebook.
In one of the cases, a now 71-year-old woman from Bergen was convicted and sentenced to 14 days in prison for making hateful comments about a minority woman who had taken an active role in public debate, Sumaya Jirde Ali. The defendant, commenting within a Facebook group that called themselves “We who support Sylvi Listhaug” ( the controversial right-wing politician for the conservative Progress Party), referred to Ali as “the devil’s black descendant” and claimed Ali should “travel back to Somalia and stay there, you corrupt cockroach.”
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported Thursday that the high court stressed how “normal readers” would interpret such a comment as an “extreme, exaggerated insult” with its reference to skin colour and ethnicity. They therefore decided that the comment is covered by the legal paragraph regarding hateful expressions in criminal law, and that the verdict sets the limit for what comments can be covered by the paragraph and what punishment can result from such legal violations. The high court softened the 71-year-old woman’s sentence, from 14 days in jail to a suspended sentence of 24 days, but also fined her NOK 24,000.
The other case sets a limit as to how far criticism of a religion can go before it’s defined as illegal harassment. The case was filed after a 53-year-old man in Norway’s southern county of Agder commented several times on Facebook, writing among other things that “it’s better to remove these disgusting rats from the face of the earth ourselves, I think!” and that “yes, they’ll disappear the day these dancing baboons travel back to where they belong!”
The Supreme Court determined that the first comment was directed at Muslims, while the second was directed at people with dark skin. The court concluded that both comments are covered by the law against hateful expression. The appeals court in Agder had convicted and fined him NOK 12,000 without issuing a jail term. The defendant had appealed his conviction to the high court but not the fine, reported NRK, so that stands along with his conviction when the court rejected his appeal.
The Supreme Court ruling also noted in its ruling against the 71-year-old woman that use of social media offers many more possibilities to express onesself publicly. The extent of hateful expression on the Internet is increasing, noted the court, warning that people therefore must be aware of the limits criminal law sets for punishable expressions.”
‘Explosive increase’ in expression
Anine Kierulf of Norway’s Institute for Human Rights has also noted the “explosive increase” in expression enabled by social media. She told Aftenposten before the ruling was handed down that Norway’s law against hateful expression, however, is vague, and that the Supreme Court ruling can help define it and set legal limits to expression.
The 22-year-old plaintiff Jirde Ali, who had spoken out about immigrants’ challenges in Norway and taken part in public debate, withdrew after receiving threats and becoming a target of hatred. She ultimately felt compelled to wear an alarm that would summon police if she felt she was in danger, and state prosecutors initially brought the threats and hatred against her and others into court.
Lower courts had ruled that Ali was “an important spokesperson for a minority group in Norway,” and that the 71-year-old woman’s comments “contributed towards building up a culture of hate against both Sumaya Ali herself and her ethnic group.” The woman’s defense attorney had argued that her client’s comments were just an outburst and not meant as a personal attack.
Ali has earlier told Aftenposten that she preferred not to comment when the Supreme Court had agreed to review her case, and she was not immediately available for comment on Thursday.