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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Free Speech

What exactly are the limits of free speech?

Many Muslims are convinced that there is a double-standard in the West: while Holocaust denial and hate speech are illegal in some countries, making fun of Mohammed is not.

A recent LA Times editorial says that the Austrian laws against Holocaust denial are counterproductive:
Free speech, even if it hurts
# Protecting the rights of a Holocaust denier ultimately protects us all.

By Michael Shermer, MICHAEL SHERMER is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American and the author of "Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?"

That Irving has been, and probably still is, a Holocaust denier is indisputable. In 1994, I interviewed him for a book on Holocaust denial, and he told me that no more than half a million Jews died during World War II, and most of those because of disease and starvation. In 2000, Irving lost his libel suit in Britain against an author, and the judge in the case called him "an active Holocaust denier … anti-Semitic and racist." And in April 2005, I attended a lecture he gave in Costa Mesa at an event sponsored by the Institute for Historical Review, the leading voice of Holocaust denial in the U.S. There he joked about the Chappaquiddick line and, holding his right arm up, boasted: "This hand has shaken more hands that shook Hitler's hand than anyone else in the world."

The important question here is not whether Irving is a Holocaust denier (he is), or whether he offends people with what he says (he does), but why anyone, anywhere should be imprisoned for expressing dissenting views or saying offensive things. Today, you may be imprisoned or fined for dissenting from the accepted Holocaust history in the following countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Switzerland.[...]

Austria's treatment of Irving as a political dissident should offend both the people who defend the rights of political cartoonists to express their opinion of Islamic terrorists and the civil libertarians who leaped to the defense of University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill when he exercised his right to call the victims of 9/11 "little Eichmanns." Why doesn't it? Why aren't freedom lovers everywhere offended by Irving's court conviction?

Freedom is a principle that must be applied indiscriminately. We have to defend Irving in order to defend ourselves. Once the laws are in place to jail dissidents of Holocaust history, what's to stop such laws from being applied to dissenters of religious or political histories, or to skepticism of any sort that deviates from the accepted canon?

No one should be required to facilitate the expression of Holocaust denial, but neither should there be what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called the "silence coerced by law — the argument of force in its worst form."

Call David Irving the devil if you like; the principle of free speech gives you the right to do so. But we must give the devil his due. Let Irving go, for our own safety's sake.

His arguments are eloquent, and as a believer in free speech I am sympathetic. (Even Deborah Lipstadt, the Holocaust researcher who won a lawsuit against Irving, does not believe that he should be in jail.)

However, to give a famous example, free speech does not give you the right to yell "Fire!" in a movie theatre. Incitement to violence is not covered under free speech.

There are serious Holocaust researchers who cast doubt on certain details. Some "facts" about the Holocaust have been shown to not be true by real historians. As in other cases, one must apply a reasonable standard for the intent of the speaker when determining whether his words are meant as a call for truth or a call for genocide.

It is a reasonable assumption that the people who deny the Holocaust happened are the people who most want it to happen again. As such, their denial is nothing more than window dressing for their desire for a world that is Judenrein.

The cartoons of Mohammed were in no way, shape or form an incitement to violence against Muslims. The only violence that occurred in the wake of the cartoons were by Muslims, not against them.

The level of offensiveness should not affect free speech. If speech is restricted by how much people are offended, then everyone has veto power over everything. The intent of the offender is all that matters, not the thinness of the skin of the offended.

The line is still blurry between free speech and incitement, but the editorial above didn't even consider the possibility of Holocaust denial as incitement to rid the world of Jews. And that is the fundamental issue that needs to be addressed.