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February 21, 2006

Freedom of Speech – Reader Feedback and Response

Readers from both Austria and Germany have commented thoughtfully on my opinion that Holocaust denial is entitled to free speech protection and should not be a crime.  Stefan Fischerländer says:

Being from Germany where we have the same kind of law forbidding to deny holocaust, I want to explain why we have this kind of law and why I think this is good.

Your "freedom of speech" is best translated to german with "Meinungsfreiheit" (freedom of opinion), which is the term our constitution uses. The right to express my opinion ends where I'm stating something obviously wrong. An example: If I'd be telling anybody that Mr. A works for company 1 while he indeed is working for company 2, Mr. A has the right to make me stop telling what is obviously wrong. This is in accordance with the freedom of opinion because in this case I'm not stating my opinion but I'm telling a fact - a fact that is wrong.

Our "Bundesverfassungsgericht" (Supreme Court) decided in 1994 that it has been proven that the holocaust really happened and so to deny holocaust is no matter of opinion. Even so denying holocaust is only forbidden if the way you're saying it could possibily be a breach of the peace. ("Störung des öffentlichen Friedens")

Additionally you have to keep our history in mind: The Federal Republic of Germany is founded on the foundation of anti-nazism. Allowing anyone to deny holocaust would pose a threat to our democracy - or at least it would have back in the 50ies and 60ies when this law was made.

And Otmar from Austria says:

The Austrian law needs to be seen in it context http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/orgs/austrian/austrian-resistance-archives/ld-14.html.

60 years ago it was an essential necessity. These days less so, but the consensus over here is still "better safe than sorry".

My thoughtful friend Aswath Rao emailed this thought:

You feel that it is wrong for Austria to ban that book. But isn't this similar to an alcoholic avoiding liquor altogether. If a society feels that antisemitism is deep rooted and widespread and that it could be rekindled easily, isn't it natural for it to put out the ember?

Contrast this with the way probably America handles white supremacist. There is widespread confidence that these people's opinion will be rejected soundly; so it can afford to let those opinions be aired. In other words, it can afford to uphold one of its principles.

Recovery from a pathological condition may require a seemingly "pathological" action.

I agree with all three of them that the Nazi atrocities and conditions immediately after the Second World War justified draconian measures.  In some sense nations which participated forfeited some of their normal rights.  Building on an anti-Nazi foundation, even repressing Nazi ideas, was necessary for the recovery of these nations.  To some extent, authoritarianism was being rooted out by authoritarian means.

But recovery can’t be complete unless the patient is eventually taken off the medicine.  Continuing a ban on Holocaust denial or other Nazi obscenities, I believe, is counter-productive.  In a new generation, opinions which are banned take on a credibility precisely because they are banned.  The generations which are too young to remember first-hand are skeptical of the motives of those who ban ideas.  The banned ideas are forced underground where they flourish rather than being refuted responsibly in the light of day. 

Moreover, no government or even popular majority can be trusted for long with the power to decide which speech is free.  The cure of censorship becomes even more dangerous than the disease of hateful speech.  We can’t claim the right to offend the sensibilities of others unless we allow our own values to be questioned and tolerate speech which offends us.

Jeff Jarvis posts on his blog:

Ah, but you may argue that his fascist intellectual forefathers incited the worst imaginable crimes and so isn’t such hateful speech worth banning? No, I’d argue that the problem in Nazi Germany was not so much that the haters could speak but that they could ban their opponents from speaking. The cold of the chill is more dangerous than the heat of the hate. I believe that a free marketplace of speech will succeed where a closed and controlled public square will fail.

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Tom Evslin posted some interesting comments from German and Austrian readers about Freedom of speech. The comments, like the blog they were posted in, are thought provoking. I liked two of them very much. The first by Stefan Fischerlnder: ... [Read More]


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