Polish musician Adam 'Nergal' Darski, frontman for the extreme metal band Behemoth, has been sanctioned for violating his country's blasphemy law. This week, news broke that Darski had been found guilty by a Polish court of "offending religious feelings"—a crime punishable by fines and up to two years in prison—for a 2019 Facebook post that showed him stepping on an image of the Virgin Mary, a sacred figure in Roman Catholic Poland.
Darski received fines of 18,500 złoty ($5,000). English news website Notes From Poland reports that he has contested the fines and that his case will proceed to a full trial.
Poland's law criminalizing insults to religious feelings, Article 196, has long courted controversy for its restrictions on free expression. A Freedom House report describes the law as conflicting "with international standards on freedom of expression." Successful prosecutions under the law are rare, says Freedom House, but "the legal process involved is itself a deterrent that encourages individuals, notably artists, to engage in self-censorship."
Individuals can instigate Article 196 cases by filing complaints with prosecutors. It's a tactic that conservative pressure groups and right-wing politicians have used repeatedly against offending artists, musicians, and activists, and indeed against Darski himself.
In 2008, several members of the conservative Law and Justice party filed a complaint against Darski for his stage antics at a 2007 concert in which the frontman ripped up a bible on stage and called the Catholic Church "the most murderous cult on the planet."
Religious scholars consulted by prosecutors during the investigation determined that this was in fact an insult to religious feelings. Nevertheless, the case was eventually dismissed in May 2010.
Notes From Poland reports that Darski has two other offensive speech cases pending against him. One such case stems from a 2018 video he posted online of himself waving a fake penis attached to a crucifix. In another, Darski was accused of insulting Poland's national emblems for a Behemoth poster that featured an upside-down cross.
The legal harassment has yet to cow the metal musician. On Tuesday, he posted a defiant statement on Instagram about his most recent fines, saying, "Will I let superstition and fundamentalist dogmas capitalize on this and EVERY other case of the same nature? FUCK NO!"
Here in the U.S., the discourse over free expression has recently revolved around the issue of "cancel culture" and whether people—from a Star Wars actress to the host of The Bachelor—have been unjustly punished by their employers for their statements on social media and to the press.
No matter how frustrating or unfair individual instances of "canceling" might be, Darski's repeated prosecutions are a reminder that old-fashioned state censorship is still a live issue in much of the world. Given the occasionally punitive impulses of our culture and political discourse, we should be grateful the U.S. doesn't have laws that criminalize hurting people's feelings.