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August 13, 2007


Tim Crane

Interesting article Nigel, thanks for the link.

I thought it was interesting how (a) they couldn't really get a debate going because none of them (Kimball, Dershowitz, Lipstadt and Glazov) thought that holocaust denial should be criminalised in the EU: and (more interestingly) (b) how the issue of freedom of speech as an abstract principle had very little to do with the whole question.

Glazov put it well when he said, discussing how free speech should be restricted when the speech has a special significance (e.g. in stirring up historical hatreds),

" On our soil [the US], holocaust denial does not carry such meaning, but if there are quarters where it does, commitment to freedom of speech would not be incompatible with criminalizing holocaust denial. ... Dr. Lipstad’s description of the processes by which the EU legislation has been developing suggests that this is the issue in Germany and Austria. The issue then is not necessarily one of principle (no denial of facts should ever be criminalized) but of the factual and historical meaning which holocaust denial plays in those lands"

The lesson of this debate for me is that free speech as such seems to be a red herring; what is important is the 'concrete analysis of the concrete situation' as comrade Lenin put it.


Nigel Warburton

Thanks for the comment, Tim.

I'm not sure that free speech should ever be treated as just an abstract principle. Almost all defenses of free speech are consequentialist to some degree. I think this is even true of those who argue that preserving a right of free expression is an aspect of respecting autonomy. It is certainly true of those who argue that democracies require extensive free speech in order to function and flourish, and those who argue that the circulation of vile views which are obviously false is an unfortunate consequence of free speech that is outweighed by the great good that results from a general protection of free speech.

Once you defend free speech in terms of its consequences (and the worse consequences of curtailing it in particular areas - though most of us believe it should be curtailed in some areas), then facts about what those consequences are likely to be become part of the debate.

I took the discussion I linked to to be largely about the likely negative consequences ensuing from an anti-Holocaust denial law. I do agree, though, that the participants seemed to agree on too much for this to get much cut and thrust.

Tim Crane

Hi Nigel

Thanks for the response. I agree with what you say here. I don't think I should have said 'abstract principle'. That was a bit vague.

What struck me in reading that debate was how little is achieved by debating a 'right' to freedom of speech as such. Since (as you say) we all believe that free speech should be curtailed in certain circumstances, the interesting questions arise when we ask under which circumstances it should be curtailed. I agree with you that here we should be consequentialists.

The debate you linked to raised the interesting possibility that it might be right to ban the expression of certain vile and false views in one place because of the history (and the possible consequences) of saying things in that place, without it necessarily being right to ban their expression everywhere. This is relativism of a kind, but one that springs from consequentialist reasoning.
all the best

Carolyn Ann

I've yet to read the article, but I do have an opinion on free speech!
Freedom of expression carries no responsibility. End of story.

There are practical problems - the infamous shouting of "fire" in a crowded theater simply for a lark - but in general, once you make some aspect of speech illegal, you open the door to "protecting" any other group that might be offended by someone's free expression. I think Ray Bradbury covered that point rather well in "Fahrenheit 451".

Pakistan recently demanded a provision regarding 'responsibility' in free speech (something with the UN, I forget exactly what). Their point was saying nasty things about Islam tends to upset Muslims. Danish cartoons, for instance. What was left out of the discussion was who would determine what's appropriate (and allowable). A similar situation exists with respect to online anti-porn laws in the US.

David Irving, who should be taking a keen interest in this debate, was jailed because he denied the holocaust. Well, in my opinion he was jailed because he was too stupid to keep his mouth shut at the appropriate time. He shouldn't have been jailed for denying the holocaust: it's his right to believe whatever he wants. However, he was really dim in exercising that right in a place that attached consequences to his words.

But once we criminalize the denial of the holocaust, where does society stop? Jail those Christians who believe Genesis to be an accurate description of the how the world started? Incarcerate those who believe the next Joseph Smith is a messiah? Or maybe toss into a deep pit those who disagree with the majority view on some topic?

Free expression is an abstract principle, and it's also a fundamental right. One that isn't always granted, to be sure. But to deny the right to deny history is a step along the road to totalitarianism. It might be a different path, but the end result will look astonishingly similar to any other dictatorship.

While it might seem to be an over-reaction - it's just one point, after all, and it is reprehensible, and so on - I have to point out that small steps always lead to a big result. The laws of unintended consequences, aka "Murphy's Law", will ensure that restrictions of valid, but hateful, speech in one area will ensure restrictions in what can be said anywhere, of anything.

It's a foolish, odious and utterly despicable effort to restrict anyone's ability to believe and say what they want. Free expression really doesn't have any responsibility.

Carolyn Ann

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