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Free speech: What if Terry Jones went to Sweden?

A look at the global state of free speech.

By Mike SacksContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / October 2, 2010

Muslims in Calcutta, India, protested American pastor Terry Jones’s plans to burn the Quran on the anniversary of 9/11.

Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters



In America, we can paint a Hitler mustache on the president's likeness without fear of the government's wrath.

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But in Jordan, a poem critical of the king can get a writer jailed. Hatim al-Shuli, a university student, was arrested in late July 2010 for penning a poem insulting the king and causing internal strife, actions proscribed under Jordan's penal code. Mr. Shuli denies writing the poem, but remains in detention awaiting trial.

"[A]rrests for things like writing poems unfortunately are regular occurrences in Jordan," reports Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy organization.

Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that "[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression." Today, decades after the UN's 1948 adoption of the declaration, Article 19 continues to be an ideal actively pursued in some countries and aggressively denied in others.

For example, in Turkey, a constitutional republic, expression considered insulting to the nation itself is a criminal offense under a 2005 penal code. And writers and journalists have been prosecuted for recognizing the Armenian genocide of 1915-17 – an event the Turkish government officially denies.

Many European countries, on the other hand, have criminalized the denial of crimes against humanity. This summer, Hungary became the latest to do so, passing a law imposing three years' imprisonment for those who deny Nazi and Communist genocides.

In addition, much of Europe has also enacted hate speech laws that allow for prosecution of expression where the United States does not. Had Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., taken his "International Burn a Koran Day" overseas and arrived in Stockholm wearing one of the "Islam Is of the Devil" T-shirts that his church sells, he could have been charged under Sweden's prohibition on expressing disrespect for a group based on their faith.

In the Netherlands, ultranationalist politician Geert Wilders is currently on trial for illegally insulting Muslims and inciting hatred against Islamic immigrants. As grounds for the prosecution, the Dutch government has cited, among other statements, Mr. Wilders's comparing Islam to Nazism and producing a film that included a Danish newspaper's inflammatory cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in the opening and closing frames.