Cartoons and revisionists

Like many, I’m kind of scratching my head about views of free speech in Europe.

First, a variety of the European press republished the Danish cartoons about Muhammad as a statement about free expression. Now, we have revisionist historian David Irving sentenced to three years in prison (with the prosecutor asking for more) for violating an Austrian law against denying the Holocaust.

Granted, I am not familiar with Austrian or EU law on freedom of speech. Still, it seems these are flip sides of the same coin.

The European press invoked the ideals of free speech in publishing cartoons some Muslims viewed as an attack on their religion. Some or all of the cartoons were published in every European country that has a law against Holocaust denial, as well as Israel. If the views expressed in the cartoons are protected, how is it justifiable to invoke criminal laws for Irving’s statements disputing the existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz? How can principles of free expression support one but not the other?

Perhaps the two situations can be distinguished on the grounds the cartoons are expressions of opinion while Irving’s statements are contrary to historical fact. That seems like a mighty fine line, though, especially if the distinction is the basis for imprisonment. Moreover, how much traction will such an explanation ever find in the Muslim world? If anything, these events give cover to those engaging in violence, enabling them to claim the Europeans (and Americans by broad brush) are hypocritical and that the sole difference is the religion involved.

Neither rioting nor imprisoning someone is a proper or legitimate response to offensive or false speech. The correct way is to battle those ideas with more speech so as to allow any person to reach his or her own conclusion. Yes, Irving’s statements are offensive. But look at what the last few years have done to his stature and credibility. His views have crumbled under discussion, examination and critique.

To rely upon free speech to justify one mode of expression while imposing a criminal sanction on another person’s exercise of that same right is more than inconsistent, it is deplorable.

If you’re in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.

Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent

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