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FALQs: Svenska akademien – The Swedish Academy

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This blog post is part of our Frequently Asked Legal Questions series.

Svenska Akademien (the Swedish Academy) which was previously relatively unknown to most people, recently received heightened media attention because of internal disputes. The disputes involved allegations of sexual harassment against the husband of an Academy member, as well as allegations of financial impropriety (or at least violation of conflict of interest rules) by the same member and husband for awarding money to a company owned by an Academy member and her husband.

The Academy hired a law firm to investigate if it had violated any laws, and to what extent members of the Academy were aware of the sexual allegations. Internal disagreements on how to deal with the findings of the law firm report ultimately culminated in the Swedish Academy postponing the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2018. Citing lack of confidence in the institution, the Academy announced its intention to instead announce two awardees in 2019, an announcement that resulted in what some have called a foreign policy crisis.

But what is the Swedish Academy and how does it work?

Gustavus III, King of Sweden, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
Gustavus III, King of Sweden, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

The Swedish Academy was established by King Gustav III to advance the Swedish language and Swedish literature. It was created by a decree on March 20, 1786, modeled after the l’Académie française (French Academy).

What is the Composition of the Academy?

The Academy is made up of 18 members, often referred to as the eighteen (de aderton). At the time of its founding, only men were allowed as members. In 1914, the bylaws were amended and Selma Lagerlöf, a Nobel Prize Winner in Literature herself (1909), was elected as the first woman member of the Academy.

As the original Academy bylaws provided for no explicit right to leave the Academy, they were interpreted as meaning that members serve for life. In response to the Academy scandal, the Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf (in his capacity as patron) published a clarification regarding application of the bylaws and introduced new rules regarding the tenure of members of the Academy. The new rules specifically allow for members to step down as well as for the Academy to expel members who have been inactive for two years. No right to expel members for impropriety has been added. Thus, whether the Academy could have expelled the member whose husband is accused of sexual misconduct remains unclear.

According to the original bylaws, twelve members need to vote in favor to elect new members into the Academy. As of today, there are 14 persons listed on the academy’s website as members, not all of whom are active. As the validity of the new rules on resignations is still debated in Sweden, it is unclear when new members may be elected.  Over the years, members who did not want to participate in the meetings have chosen to cease attending or participating in the Swedish Academy’s work instead of withdrawing (as this was not possible).

What are the Tasks of the Academy?

The Academy’s most famous duty is to award the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1901, the Nobel Foundation decided that the Swedish Academy would be tasked with awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Stadga med särskilda bestämmelser angående utdelning genom Svenska Akademien av pris från Nobelstiftelsen m.m. (SFS 1900:63 s. 25) [Regulation with special provisions regarding the awarding of prizes from the Nobel Foundation by the Swedish Academy]). Most recently the prize has been awarded to Kazuo Ishiguro in 2017 and Bob Dylan in 2016.

The Swedish Academy, has other duties as well:

Is The Swedish Academy a Government Agency?

Some claim that it may be. The Swedish Courts are set to hear a petition by Samhällsmagasinet Avsnitt (Swedish magazine) that argues that the Swedish Academy is in fact a government agency. If successful it would mean that the Swedish Academy is subject to the Freedom of Information Rules and required to produce copies of its minutes on demand.

Could Another Institution Award the Nobel Prize in Literature?

Possibly. Nobel’s testament does not specifically instruct that the Nobel Prize in literature be awarded by the Swedish Academy but “the Academy in Stockholm”, which has been interpreted to mean the Swedish Academy.  Legally, the Nobelstiftelsen (Nobel Foundation) is the keeper of the will and could ask to have it re-interpreted by the Swedish Legal, Financial and Administrative Services Agency.

Following the recent drama surrounding the Swedish Academy, suggestions have been made that, for example, the Vitterhetsakademien (the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters) award the prize. The Royal Swedish Academy of Letters was established in 1753, re-organized and re-named in 1786, and can be considered as a predecessor of, or inspiration for, the creation of the Swedish Academy. Some of the members that had previously served on the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters were also the first to serve on the Swedish Academy.

What Happened to the Report from the law firm?

The Swedish Academy decided to forward the report to the Swedish Economic Crime Authority which is now investigating whether any economic crimes may have been committed.

Update: This was originally published as a guest post by Elin Hofverberg. The author information has been updated to reflect that Elin is now an In Custodia Legis blogger

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