February 20, 2006

Free David Irving

I know very little about David Irving, except that he is a historian who downplayed some aspects of the Nazi mass murder of European Jews, and lost a libel trial in England to Deborah Lipstadt.

Now Mr. Irving has been convicted and sentenced to three years' imprisonment in Austria under a law that makes denial of Nazi villainy a criminal offense, for remarks he made some time ago.

This conviction illustrates some differences between the European and US conceptions of freedom of speech. In Europe and Canada, deviation from conventional wisdom on the Nazi era can be a crime. In the United States, freedom of speech extends to statements that others consider outrageous and offensive.

The Americans have the better of this argument. We have a tradition of rough-and-tumble, even scurrilous debate over politics and other matters, and are none the worse for it. In part this reflects a belief that the truth will emerge from free debate, and in part from an unwillingness to trust government to decide what speech is too dangerous or too offensive to be heard.

Therefore, even though Holocaust denial is sometimes associated with very unpleasant anti-Jewish sentiment, the American view of free speech leads to the concluson that it is appaling (not to say hypocritical in the land of Kurt Waldheim) to jail Mr. Irving for his deviant views on Nazi genocide. While Mr. Irving's views may not be worthy of defense, his right to express them is. Therefore, like him or not, like it or not, I am forced to say "Free David Irving."

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