Defining Free Speech

“Those Who Can Make You Believe Absurdities, Can Make You Commit Attrocities.” - Voltaire

David Irving

David Irving, during his recent trial in Vienna | Photo: Creative Commons

In the end, 67 guests made it to the party.

Ostensibly, the purpose of their meeting was to freely exchange opinions on a historical issue. But a cursory glance at the guest list left little doubt as to the lack of objectivity.

Up there on the left of the podium one could make out the chiselled nose of David Duke, ex-Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, a man who as a student strolled around Campus proudly sporting full Nazi uniform.

At the other end of the table smiles Fredrick Töben, founder of the internationally condemned, openly anti-Semitic Adelaide Institute, clearing his throat before his speech “The Holocaust – Murder Weapon.” A murder weapon in the hands of Jews, that is.

And here comes our host now, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. A quick embrace with Rabbi Moshe Friedman, the Austrian based anti-Zionist who apparently believes the Holocaust to be a ‘successful fiction’, and then he’s off to greet the rest of his new friends.

The small-talk between lectures at the International Conference to Review the Global Vision of the Holocaust was probably not to most people’s taste. Listening to somebody argue against the existence of the Holocaust is normally enough to turn a stomach.

But the really tough part comes with what to do about it. Just because we disagree,  does that mean that these arguments should be silenced?

Holocaust Denial is a criminal offence in several European countries. Penalties for calling into question the verity of the facts range from a probable fine in Belgium, to a hefty maximum 20 year prison term in Austria. Germany, currently holding the rotating EU presidency, has recently stated its intention to push for a pan-EU Holocaust Denial law.

But although the thought of Holocaust Deniers locked up probably doesn’t raise much sympathy at first, a deeper look may lead one to wonder if the punishment really fits the crime.

After all, don’t we live in a society that guarantees freedom of expression? And if so, isn’t the right to deny something’s existence, regardless of how much it offends people or how absurd it sounds, covered by this basic  guarantee?

The answers to these questions are no, and no. No country permits completely free speech, and most have broader laws against libel or inciting racial hatred. In Austria, it is illegal to say that Hitler did not kill six million Jews. Britain, a country without Holocaust Denial laws, still has a blasphemy law on its statute books.

However, we may take the argument further, and question if Holocaust Denial can really be classified along with libel, where the writer intentionally falsifies in order to mislead. Or he may spot a degree of hypocrisy: Can a relatively obscure book incite so much more racial hatred than thousands of blue and white posters urging one to remember that Islam isn’t at home here? Or foment more violence than a selection of offensive cartoons?

At this point the question becomes, why specifically has Holocaust Denial become illegal?

Holocaust Denial was criminalized in Austria under the 1947 Verbotsgesetz of the constitution which came into action on the 8th May 1945, directly after the Second World War. Detailing the outlawing of National Socialism and the de-nazification of Austria, § 3 of the Verbotsgesetz deals with NSWiederbetätigung, or the reactivation of Nazism. In line with this article, acts such as participating with Nazi organisations, the praising of Nazi goals or the denial of Nazi crimes became illegal.

Basically the crime of Holocaust Denial came to be as one of a collection of measures designed to ensure that National Socialism never found a foothold again. Although this may be understandable in a country traumatised by the evil events it had just experienced, justifiably afraid that history could repeat itself, free speech advocates have a problem with part, if not all, of such legislation.

They start with Voltaire: “I disapprove with what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it.” The French philosopher’s famous words were repeated often in 2006, and represent the central tenet of free speech advocates.

Freedom of speech is a hard won human right, and to ensure it, one has to accept that there may be others who disagree. Reason will triumph in the end, the argument goes.  The best way to counter argument is with counter-argument, not with legislation designed to control the way one thinks. Besides, if the government censors you for one thing today, they could censor you for something else tomorrow, and where do we draw the line?

Which argument is stronger? Well, Voltaire also said: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities,” and the atrocities of the Second World War are certainly something that we do not want to see repeated.

But would laws that are so narrowly constrained to Nazism have any effect in preventing similar atrocities  arising in any form they could take in the future? And if not, does the legislation make any sense?

And there is one other argument, perhaps one that doesn’t really align with either camp? What if the laws have the opposite effect than that intended?

One final quote from the great rationalist may help here: “It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.” There should always be concern that in silencing opinions, we could end up legitimising them. Take them off the table, and we lose the chance to disprove them.

By silencing Holocaust Deniers, we lose the chance to ridicule them, and give them the chance to quote Voltaire above.

And the last thing we want to do is turn the absurdity of Holocaust Denial into a successful fiction.

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