Contrary to Reports – No Proposal for Ban on Runes in Sweden

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This is an English translation of an article in Swedish published here at juridikfronten.org on June 1st. During the past weeks, disinformation regarding the Swedish Commission on Racist Symbols has been circulating internationally. It has been claimed that the Swedish government and the Commission was preparing a general ban on runes. This article is intended to set the facts straight. 

On May 29th the Commission on Racist Symbols submitted their report “Racist Symbols – A Review of Case Law and Analysis” (Google Translate, official summary in English), to representatives of the Ministry of Justice. The report should be read in its entirety, since this summary cannot do justice to it.

The association Juridikfronten (“The Legal Front”) has been represented in the Commission, which has been operating since autumn, by Benjamin O J Boman, LL.M.

– Juridikfronten is very satisfied with Boman’s contribution to the work of the Commission. In an exemplary way he has contributed by submitting legal material and his expertise. This has given the Commission the possibility to present a uniquely extensive overview of court rulings and decisions by the Chancellor of Justice regarding symbols and incitement to racial hatred, Johan Nordqvist, Chairperson of Juridikfronten, says.

As a non-profit association Juridikfronten has for a long time advocated moderation and opposed extensive criminalization. A functioning democracy needs a free and open debate. Some “friends of Sweden” (a self-label used by followers of the Swedish far right party the Sweden Democrats, and associated movements) and so-called alternative media have been spreading rumours that the Commission’s work is a part of an effort to prohibit the usage of runes. Foreign media, such as Russian Russia Today and Sputnik have fueled such rumours about the Commission’s purpose.

It is notable that prohibition of the use of runes never has been the purpose of the Commission, and that the Commission does not advocate the prohibition of runic usage.

Symbols – e. g. a shirt containing a swastika or the SS-symbol – are a class of expressions which are difficult to contradict in a free and open debate. The only symbol which, in case law by the Supreme Court of Sweden, has been said to convey a contemptive and therefore criminal message, is the National Socialist eagle (cf. the picture).

So, what was the conclusion of the Commission? The Commission was, partly because of the work of the representative of Juridikfronten (cf. p. 24), able to make an extensive overview of case law from the lower courts and the Chancellor of Justice during the periods 1991-2019 and 1996-2019. The approximately 130 court cases and 120 decisions by the Chancellor of Justice the Commission that were reviewed, concerned about 30 different symbols.

Regarding the case law, the Commission writes (p. 73):

Some symbols which often figure in court cases is the National Socialist eagle and the Wolfsangel. The spread of these symbols are in most cases regarded as agitation against a population group [Sw. hets mot folkgrupp]. Regarding other relatively common symbols, such as the Celtic Cross and the scull (Totenkopf), the judgments vary and depend on the circumstances at hand.

The Commission found that there is no reason to change the current regulation regarding Racist and similar symbols, to change the current statutes regarding agitation against a population group (incitement to racial hatred), or to criminalize the use of certain symbols in a new statute (p. 133). Strong reasons must be presented in order for a change of the well-enforced agitation statutes to be warranted (p. 119). The current regulations are deemed appropriate.

Most prosecutions involving the usage of symbols will today result in convictions. Only in a few of the cases from the lower courts the spread of a symbol was not considered to involve a threat or contempt. These cases regarded sun crosses, an eagle together with what was claimed to be to combined S:es, Celtic Crosses, the numbers 18 and 28 together with sculls, the Confederate flag, and the Týr rune (Tiwaz). Except the sun cross and Tiwaz, the other symbols has been considered illegal (in certain contexts) in other court judgments (p. 128).

Regarding the Týr rune, ᛏ, which is used by the nazi organization the Nordic Resistence Movement, the Commission writes (p. 132):

Neither the wording of the statutes nor the statements made in the case NJA 1996 p. 577 prohibit a court decision that the usage of the Týr rune in a certain context and design is to be considered as a threat against or contempt for a protected group.

On p. 117 the following is stated:

We understand that certain organizations demonstrating or expressing themselves in other ways, in some cases can be experienced as offensive, unpleasant or threatening. The question is however if the symbols themselves cause this, or if there are other explanations.

Our comprehension is that the main explanation ought to be the above-mentioned organizations’ ideologies and intimidation capital and their behaviour in the form of public disturbances and use of violence, threats and harassment. […] It cannot just be claimed that the use of symbols, which cannot already be combatted using the statutes regarding agitation against a population group, per se, in the same way creates insecurity and indignation.

Are there any illegal symbols? Regarding this, the Commission writes (p. 12):

When assessing whether the use of a symbol comprises agitation against a population group, account must be taken of the context. It is therefore not possible to categorically say that using a certain symbol is illegal.

This is probably the most important thing to remember for those who want to evaluate current legislation. Regarding runes, it may indeed be noted that a few runes figure in convictions – namely ᛟ, ᛉ, ᛋ and ᛇ – but these symbols have in those cases been used in certain contexts where the racist message was apparent.

No one has been convicted for using a solitary Thor’s Hammer (Mjölnir), according to the Commission’s summary of case law. This is also true about the sun cross, ⊕, which appear in rock carvings.