Language is a valuable asset, so do not forget Frisian

Sigrid Hemels, Professor of Tax Law at Erasmus School of Law, and Wibren van der Burg, Professor of Philosophy of Law and Legal Theory, talk about "Kneppelfreed" (Bat Friday), the confrontation between the police and supporters of speaking the Frisian language in court which occurred seventy years ago. In commemoration of this event, they also discuss the role of the Frisian language in (tax) law. Kneppelfreed accelerated the establishment of legal regulation concerning the use of the Frisian language.


Van der Burg is the son of a veterinarian in Frisia who kept speaking Frisian to the local judge in 1951. The judge understood Frisian perfectly fine but told the veterinarian otherwise in an official statement during the court hearing. Wibren van der Burg discusses the events of this case and the run-up to Kneppelfreed in the Leeuwarder Courant. After the court hearing, several journalists expressed their criticism of the actions of this judge. The column of one of these journalists, Fedde Schurer, was so critical that Schurer was prosecuted for insulting the judge. On the day of the court hearing, a violent confrontation occurred between the police and supporters of Schurer. The police used bats and water cannons. The outrage was so big that Kneppelfreed and the following appeal case in which lawyer Abel Herzberg gave a literal plea in favour of the Frisian language, resulted in the accelerated establishment of laws concerning the Frisian language. Therefore, Kneppelfreed is seen as a defining moment in the battle for the Frisian language.


Unfortunately, the battle does not seem to be entirely over yet: Dutch laws and other regulations are not always taking into account the unique position of the Frisian language. "In The Hague, people have too little awareness of the status of Frisian in the Netherlands," says Hemels. Earlier this year, she wrote about this in NFTR and Het Financieele Dagblad (both articles are in Dutch) and linked this issue to Kneppelfreed. She did not know how closely her colleague Van der Burg was involved in this subject. Their mutual interest came to light when Van der Burg read the announcement of the Fedde Schurer Lecture that Hemels planned to give on 27 November.

Hemels' attention was drawn to the subject when she read about a Dutch public benefit organisation (anbi) called Stichting Fryske Oekumenyske Tsjerketsjinsten yn Súdwest-Fryslân (FOET), of which the Dutch tax authority had withdrawn their tax status because their website was in Frisian. Of course, this website was in Frisian because it arranged church services in Frisian. Without their anbi status, they could no longer receive tax-free donations. The foundation ran for sixty per cent on the contributions of its donors.

The tax authority, however, was wrong in this case. Government institutions are not allowed to prohibit Frisian foundations from using the Frisian language without having legitimate reason. This is set in national legislation but also the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In the governing agreement, Frisian Language and Culture 2019-2023, anbi’s are allowed to report in Frisian on their website. However, the anbi-application form and the tax authority's website do not mention this. At the same time, however, it does state that the website is allowed to be in Dutch, German, English, and French. Forms that bigger anbi's must put on their website since the beginning of this year are only available in Dutch.

Time for a change

Not just the tax authority, but also the Ministry of Justice and Security do sometimes forget about Frisian. Last year’s legislative proposal 'Transparency of social organisations' obliges non-commercial foundations and associations to deposit their balance sheet and give an overview of their revenue and expenses. This proposal also contains demands concerning the languages in which this financial data can be deposited. "Minister Dekker allows these organisations to deliver these pieces in Dutch, English, French, and German, but Frisian is not included. That surprises me", says Hemels. The government has bound herself to stimulate the Frisian language, and a prohibition of the language must be justified. The current draft of the proposal and specifically the language requirements do not seem to be aligned with this. A justification for prohibiting the Frisian language is lacking, which is against the European Charter.

Hemels reckons that it is not ill intent by the government, but rather a case of unawareness. She thinks the amendment is still possible because, currently, it is just a legislative proposal. It is now up to Parliament: "It is remarkable that seventy years after Kneppelfreed, the Frisian language still must be fought for in The Hague. The Netherlands has obliged herself to stimulate the use of the language and not prohibit its use without proper justification to do so. The language is a valuable asset, so The Hague: please do not forget Frisian."

More information

Read the entire interview with Sigrid Hemels in the Leeuwarder Courant here (in Dutch).

Click here to read more about the case of Van der Burg and the interview on the event with Wibren van der Burg and his brother (in Dutch).

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