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Norway: Blasphemy Provision to Be Removed from Penal Code

(May 19, 2015) On May 12, 2015, the Norwegian Parliament made a final decision to immediately remove the provision on blasphemy from the country’s General Civil Penal Code. The King must approve the amendment to the Code, and so the formal entry into force of the change will occur on or after May 22. (Anders Myklebust, Mocking the Beliefs of Others Now Permitted, VÅRT LAND (May 5, 2015) (in Norwegian).)

The Code provision, section 142, had stated:

Any person who by word or deed publicly insults or in an offensive or injurious manner shows contempt for any creed whose practice is permitted in the realm or for the doctrines or worship of any religious community lawfully existing here, or who aids and abets thereto, shall be liable to fines or to detention or imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months.

A prosecution will only be instituted when it is required in the public interest. (The General Civil Penal Code, Act. No. 10 of May 22, 1902, text in English based on the Code as amended by Act No. 131 of Dec. 21, 2005, University of Oslo Translated Norwegian Legislation website; General Civil Penal Code (Penal Code) (May 22, 1902 repealed by Act No. 28 of May 20, 2005, but repeal not yet in force) (in Norwegian).)

The blasphemy provision had actually already been removed from Norway’s new Penal Code, adopted in 2005, but the new Code has not yet entered into force because the police had reportedly needed new information technology systems in order to implement the new measures. (Myklebust, supra; Code on Punishment (Penal Code), Act No. 28 of May 20, 2005 (as last amended by Act No. 44 of June 20, 2008) (in Norwegian).) This situation will change on October 1, 2015, when the new Code is scheduled to finally take effect. (Jon D. Bech, New Penal Code, LOVDATA (May 6, 2015) (in Norwegian).)

Background

The impetus for the immediate removal of the article was the attack against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris on January 7, 2015. Norwegian Members of Parliament Anders B. Werp and Jan Arild Ellingsen submitted a proposal on February 10, 2015, urging that the action be taken, stating that while the existence of a blasphemy provision obviously does not legitimize violence, on the other hand it underpins a perception that religious expressions and symbols are entitled to special protection against utterances. In the legislators’ view, “[t]his is a very unfortunate signal to send, and it is time that society clearly stands up for freedom of speech, even in religious matters.” (Member Proposal 59 L (2014-2015) of Members of Parliament Anders B. Werp and Jan Arild Ellingsen, Dokument 8:59 L (2014–2015), Stortinget [Norwegian Parliament] website (Feb. 10, 2015)(in Norwegian).)

Other Stances Taken

Finn Jarle Sæle, editor of Norge IDAG, a Norwegian Christian publication, expressed opposition to the measure, however. In his view, which he had originally expressed in 2004, removal of the provision constitutes “cultural suicide.” (Norway Repeals Blasphemy Law in Symbolic Snub to Charlie Hebdo Attack, RT NEWS (May 10, 2015); Myklebust, supra.)

In 2009, the Norwegian government had proposed giving special protection to religious values, but Parliament had defeated the proposal and instead voted in favor of repealing the blasphemy provision, despite strong opposition from the Christian Democrat Party. (Norway Repeals Blasphemy Law in Symbolic Snub to Charlie Hebdo Attack, supra; Norway Ends Blasphemy Law After Hebdo Attack, THE LOCAL (May 7, 2015).)

Application of the Provision in the Past

Reportedly, Arnulf Overland, a prominent Norwegian writer, was the last person to stand trial for blasphemy under the Penal Code, in 1933. He was charged with the offense for giving a lecture to the Norwegian Students’ Society on “Christianity, the Tenth Plague,” but later acquitted. Journalist Arnfred Olsen was the last person found guilty of blasphemy; he was tried in 1912 for writing an article criticizing Christianity in the radical Freethinkers magazine. (Norway Repeals Blasphemy Law in Symbolic Snub to Charlie Hebdo Attack, supra.)