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Jailing of Holocaust Denier Leads to Discussion of the Nature of Free Speech

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
March - April 2006

In February, David Irving was sentenced to three years in jail for Holocaust denial in Austria, where such speech is illegal.  

The Economist (Feb. 25, 2006) reported that, “Irving was once seen as a serious historian ... On an earlier visit to Austria in 1989 he had asserted that there were no gas chambers in Auschwitz, a Nazi extermination camp in occupied Poland ... Most Austrians seemed pleased with the verdict. The sight of the country’s tough law against Nazi propaganda being used to convict a posh British controversialist serves, if nothing else, to distract attention from lingering unresolved questions about the country’s past.”  

Some Jewish groups praised the verdict. “The sentence confirms David Irving as a bigot and an anti-semite and also serves a direct challenge to the Iranian regime’s embrace of Holocaust denial,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Wiesenthal Center.  

The International Jerusalem Post (Feb. 24-March 2, 2006) hailed the verdict: “...denying the murder of six million Jews is not an ‘opinion,’ but hate speech ... Holocaust denial is a common contention of those who seek to delegitimize Israel and promulgate Nazi-inspired bigotry. The denial of genocide is a warning sign of movements that have genocidal goals and endorse genocidal acts. Irving, therefore, wasn’t sentenced for his ‘opinions,’ but for disseminating hate and incitement. Countries where past excessive permissiveness spawned the worst genocidal horrors are right to be ultra-wary of repeat leniency for inflammatory rhetoric. In today’s intemperate climate we can only applaud the resolve demonstrated by the Viennese court.”  

Other observers are critical of jailing Irving for his Holocaust denial speech. In 2000, Irving sued American scholar Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University for libel in the United Kingdom and lost the case. The presiding judge at that trial dubbed him “an active Holocaust denier, an anti-Semite and a racist.” Professor Lipstadt has been critical of the verdict: “I fought this man’s libel charge against me for six years. For more than three months, I had to silently sit in court in London listening to him say the most horrible things about Jews, people of color and survivors. He made fun of those who talked about gas chambers and sneered at survivors’ accounts of what they endured ... Quietly and meticulously, relying on the stellar work of a dream team of historians, we showed that every one — not many, not most, but all — of David Irving’s claims were complete rot ... They were, as the prominent historian Richard Evans and the leader of our research team, said, ‘A tissue of lies’ ... Why then was I not delighted with the court sentence handed down in Vienna Feb. 20?”  

Lipstadt continues:“I am writing this sitting in the shadow of the Vatican, preparing to teach a course on the Holocaust at the Pontifical Gregorian University ... For centuries, the church censored Jewish books, forcing Jews to remove anything the church authorities deemed objectionable to Christianity. Even prayers were censored. We Jews, who have suffered from censorship, should not be supporting it. Moreover, I don’t believe censorship is efficacious. It renders the censored item into forbidden fruit, making it more appealing, not less so. ... The best way to counter Holocaust deniers is to teach as many people as possible this history. That is why courses on history of the Holocaust have proven so popular and important. Students who take those courses will never fall prey to the David Irving-like distortions.” (Washington Jewish Week (March 2, 2006)  

Writing in The Washington Post (Feb. 26, 2006), columnist George F. Will states; “In some recess of David Irving’s reptile brain, he knows that his indefensible imprisonment is helping his side. His side consists of all the enemies of open societies ... Holocaust denial, which is anti-Semitism, started up with the trappings of historiography, is a crime in Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Lithuania, New Zealand, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Switzerland. And in Austria, which criminalizes speech that ‘denies, grossly trivializes, approves or seeks to justify’ Nazi atrocities ... Last week, while Europe was lecturing Muslims about the virtue of tolerating free expression by Danish cartoonists, Irving was sentenced to three years in prison. What folly. What dangers do the likes of Irving pose? Holocaust denial is the occupation of cynics and lunatics who are always with us but are no reason for getting governments into the dangerous business of outlawing certain arguments. Laws criminalizing Holocaust denial open a moral pork barrel for politicians. Many groups can be pandered to with speech restrictions. Why not a law regulating speech about slavery? Or Stalin’s crimes?”  

Will concludes: “For several decades in America,the aim of much of the jurisprudential thought about the First Amendment’s free-speech provision has been to justify contracting its protections. Freedom of speech is increasingly ‘balanced’ against ‘competing values.’ As a result it is whittled down, often by seemingly innocuous increments, to a minor constitutional afterthought. On campuses, speech codes have abridged the right of free expression to protect the right — for such it has become — of certain preferred groups to not be offended ... To improve all of us, people with various agendas are itching to get government to regulate speech of this or that sort. Even open societies have would-be mullahs. But the more serious threats to freedom are mullahs who control societies: Irving, expecting a suspended sentence, had planned to travel to Tehran to participate in a conference, organized by Iran’s government, to promote Holocaust denial."

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