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The Public Sphere and Freedom of Expression in Northern Europe 1814–1914: a special issue of Scandinavica

The final issue of Scandinavica, before it transitions to an open access publishing model in summer 2020, is dedicated to free speech. This week, our blog reproduces the Foreword from volume 58, issue 2 (2019), co-written by Elettra Carbone (UCL) and Ruth Hemstad (National Library of Norway and University of Oslo). The full issue can be read at

In the course of the nineteenth century, the public sphere and freedom
of expression featured prominently in political and cultural discourses
in Northern Europe. Defined as the space where public opinion takes
shape, the public sphere develops as a concept across Europe around
the 1810s alongside discussions on freedom of expression and
freedom of the press centering on the extent to which the press’s and
the individual’s ability to spread information and express new ideas
should be guaranteed by law (Hemstad and Michalsen 2019: 16). More
recent debates following cases such as the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad
cartoons controversy in 2005, the Charlie Hebdo case in 2011 and
subsequent reactions following the shooting in 2015, the highly
contentious publications by Milo Yiannopoulos and the spreading of
concepts such as ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, are only a handful
of well-known examples demonstrating how these two topics continue
to be of interest and relevance today. This special issue entitled The
Public Sphere and Freedom of Expression in Northern Europe 1814–
discusses the origin and development of these important fields
focusing on their formative period, while placing debates around
them within a broader socio-cultural context and emphasising the
importance of transnational and comparative approaches.

The Nordic countries have traditionally been regarded as pioneers in
the historical development of freedom of expression. In 2016, Sweden
and Finland celebrated the 250th anniversary of the world’s first freedom of the press act, passed in 1766. In 2020, Denmark followed
suit, celebrating the 250th anniversary of the world’s first (and hitherto
the only one of its kind) freedom of the press act without any kind of
restrictions, passed in 1770. While both milestones are clearly worth
celebrating, it is important to note that the progressive freedoms
granted by these two acts did not last for long. The history of the
consolidation of the public sphere and freedom of expression is one
of gradual and uneven development, through conflicts, setbacks and
battles, until the achievement of gradually broader public participation
towards the end of the nineteenth century. The Nordic countries of
today are, together with the Low Countries, consistently ranked at
the top of the World Press Freedom Index. This is, however, not the
case with Great Britain, which in 2019 was ranked 33rd (out of 180
countries) ( This appears to indicate a
reverse development considering that, in nineteenth-century debates
on freedom of the press, Great Britain was seen as a model, a beacon
of freedom of expression.

Studying the development in the Nordic countries, the British Isles
and the Low Countries through a transnational and comparative
approach, this issue aims to shed new light on the expansion of
the public sphere and freedom of expression, as well as on related
national, political and cultural changes in the nineteenth century. The
nine articles featured here cover a broad range of topics, engaging with
legal, intellectual, emotional, military, social and cultural history and
addressing questions around individual and collective rights, nation- and
region-building, the development of civil society, education and
cultural heritage.

The contributions in this issue are based on conference proceedings
from the conference ‘The Public Sphere and Freedom of Expression
Britain and the Nordic Countries, 1815–1900’, held at UCL in London
in June 2018. The event was a collaboration between the Department
of Scandinavian Studies at UCL and the research project ‘The Public
Sphere and Freedom of Expression in the Nordic Countries 1815–1900’
at the University of Oslo. This interdisciplinary research group is part
of UiO:Nordic, one of three main strategic research initiatives at the
University of Oslo (2016–2022). Its aim is to provide new knowledge on the Nordic countries’ different paths to freedom of expression and
a free and open public sphere, and to explore Nordic differences and
interactions in the nineteenth century from an international perspective
and in a transnational context. This themed issue of Scandinavica is a
clear example of this. The Anglo-Nordic relations covered in its studies
are of specific interest, considering that Britain played, as mentioned
above, a major role as model in debates on freedom of expression
and the public sphere and was considered an important political actor
with strategic, geopolitical, and, to a certain degree, cultural interests
in the Nordic area. Whereas the relation between Great Britain and the
smaller countries in the North is one of asymmetry throughout the
nineteenth century, the Low Countries, discussed particularly in the
article by Ruth Hemstad, represent a comparable entity in terms of size
and international influence.

The first section of this issue, consisting of three articles, examines
the main trends and developments within the field of freedom of
expression in the Nordic countries and the UK in the nineteenth

Lars Björne’s article on the theory and practice of freedom of
expression in the Nordic countries from 1815 to 1914 (translated by
Ian Giles) is based on his seminal monograph from 2018, Frihetens
gränser: Yttrandefriheten i Norden 1814–1915
(Freedom’s Borders:
Freedom of Expression in the Nordic Countries 1814–1915). This is
the first comprehensive discussion on legal regulations, theoretical
debates and court practices regarding freedom of the press in the
Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland) in the
nineteenth century. Björne underlines the enduring role that the Danish
autocracy’s regulation on the boundaries of freedom of the press from
1799 played in the Nordic countries. In spite of the absence of advance
censorship and the right of the author and publisher to have their case
tried before a court – secured in the 1799 regulation – freedom of
expression was often under threat as those in power did not support
the opposition’s right to express dissenting views. Whereas freedom of
expression was constitutionally protected in the Scandinavian countries
during the nineteenth century, the English tradition, discussed by Eric
Barendt, is somehow different. He emphasizes that a study of freedom of expression (or freedom of the press or of discussion, as it was
known at the time) in nineteenth-century England has to focus on the
various restrictions imposed on the exercise of this freedom, rather
than on the scope of the freedom itself. Barendt looks at freedom of
the press, freedom of expression and freedom of speech in view of
contemporary libel laws and concludes that in the UK the protection of
this freedom is weak in principle but robust in practice. Philip Schofield’s
article expands on this point by contributing with central theoretical
reflections on freedom of expression and the public sphere in his
study of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and his writings on the ideas
of freedom of the press, public opinion, and good government. Some
of these works were translated into Swedish and Danish/Norwegian.
Schofield demonstrates how Bentham, throughout his career, placed
great emphasis on public opinion as a bulwark against oppression and
misrule, and strongly recommended liberty of the press and liberty of
public associations in order to secure good government.

In the second section, two comparative articles focus on Northern
European united kingdoms in the nineteenth century in relation to the
development of the public sphere, civil society and nation-building.
Union states and united kingdoms, such as the United Kingdom of
Great Britain and Ireland (1801–1922), the United Kingdoms of Norway
and Sweden (1814–1905) and the United Kingdom of the Netherlands
(1815–1830), are examples of new state constructions experiencing
national forces and ideas, which gained ground in the European
Restoration – a transitional period in European history. In his article,
Alvin Jackson compares the British-Scottish-Irish and the Swedish-
Norwegian union states and discusses the role of civil society and
national symbolism in the endurance of this kind of state construction.
Civil society and the press could support, but also undermine, the
union. In her study, Ruth Hemstad compares the United Kingdoms
of Norway and Sweden and the United Kingdom of the Netherlands
– both constructed in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars – as a
loose personal union and a unitary state, respectively. She discusses
politics of unification and amalgamation in order to blend two different
national groups as well as the national reactions against this kind of
politics, especially on behalf of the non-dominant partner.

The two articles in the third section discuss different aspects of
international politics and the role of more or less publicly expressed
feelings and emotions, focusing, respectively, on the transnational
relations between Britain and Norway, and between Sweden and
the former Eastern part of the Swedish Realm, Finland. Roald Berg
discusses the relationship between Norway and Britain inspired by
recent research on the role of emotions, and examines the history
of Norwegian distrust of Britain – a distrust that lived alongside the
allegedly trusting belief in the ‘British guarantee’ of Norway. In the
following contribution, Mart Kuldkepp argues that the persistent
revanchist feelings in Sweden vis-à-vis Russia over the loss of Finland
in 1809 constitute an undercurrent in Sweden’s otherwise peaceful
modern history. The ‘Finnish Question’ in Sweden, frequently debated
in Swedish liberal press during the Crimean War against Russia (1853–
1856), reflected feelings of national humiliation over the defeat in 1809
as well as anxieties over the development of Fennoman nationalism
and the possibilities presented by the Scandinavianist movement.

The last two articles focus on education, culture and the public
sphere, seen from a transnational British-Scandinavian perspective.
Merethe Roos’s study of the British press and the great interest in
the Norwegian and Swedish contributions at the educational exhibition
in London in 1854 concludes that that the rising British interest in
Scandinavia as a tourist destination, as a utopia of the North, played
a role in stimulating a general interest in Scandinavian issues. Finally,
Elettra Carbone looks closer at the idea of the ‘Cheerful Danes’ seen
from the perspective of the British scholar and traveller Henry Clarke
Barlow (1806–1876), whose unpublished writings have long been
stored in UCL Special Collections. His travelling to and writing on
Copenhagen – a rather untypical Scandinavian tourist destination at
the time – are representative of an alternative North, one where culture
and education are prime sources of happiness.

By discussing the origin and development of freedom of expression
and the public sphere and demonstrating how these pivotal processes
are intertwined with questions of nation-building, international
relations and provision of culture and information, this themed issue
contributes to our historical understanding of freedom and public participation in Northern Europe throughout the nineteenth century
while stressing the importance of scholarly approaches that transgress
national boundaries and limitations.

Hemstad, R. and Michalsen, D. (eds.) (2019). Frie ord i Norden?
Medborgerskap, offentlighet og ytringsfrihet, nordiske erfaringer
. Oslo: Pax.