Saturday, January 20, 2007

Banning Holocaust Denial

Excellent article by Timothy Garton Ash at Comment is Free on the proposed EU ban on holocaust denial. This excerpt is the best section but the rest is a comprehensive demolition of the case for such laws and well worth reading:

"So this additional restriction on free expression - an EU-wide ban on Holocaust denial and Nazi insignia - is justified because it will make a significant difference to combating racism, anti-semitism and xenophobia today.

But what is the evidence for that? Nine EU member states currently have laws against Holocaust denial: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. That happens to be a list of countries with some of the strongest rightwing xenophobic parties in the EU, from France's National Front and the Vlaams Belang in Belgium to the NPD in Germany and the Greater Romania party. Self-evidently those parties don't exist as a result of Holocaust denial laws. Indeed, the existence of such parties is one of the reasons given for having the laws, but the laws have obviously not prevented their vigorous and dangerous growth. If anything, the bans and resulting court cases have given them a nimbus of persecution, that far-right populists love to exploit.

The same thing has happened with the imprisonment of David Irving in Austria. Six years ago Irving lost, in the British high court, a spectacular libel case that he had himself initiated against the American historian Deborah Lipstadt, who had described him as "one of the most prominent and dangerous Holocaust deniers". Mr Justice Gray concluded that Irving was "an active Holocaust denier". The last shreds of his reputation as a serious historian were torn apart - in a country that does not ban Holocaust denial. Now, having served time in Austria for statements he made there 16 years before, he can pose as a martyr for free speech and receives renewed publicity for his calumnies. At a press conference after his release, he reportedly endorsed the drunken anti-semitic comment of Mel Gibson that "the Jews" are responsible for all the wars in the world."

Apparently moves for such a law have always been defeated in the past. Hopefully this proposal will share the same fate.

It is important, though, to notice the difference between this threat to free speech and that posed by the violent response to the Danish cartoons. Holocaust denial laws are put in place democratically and can be opposed politically instead of being in place thanks to the violence of a minority and not subject to political challenge. This is why the best opposition to holocaust denial laws is through the democratic process whereas the only plausible opposition to restrictions on free speech imposed through the threat of violence is defiance. This makes the threat to free speech from holocaust denial laws less of a danger to a free society.

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