Voltaire didn’t in fact say that line about not agreeing with you but defending to the death your right to say it. That was actually a line in a play about Voltaire, with his character saying it. But still, it’s a useful definition of what it is all supposed to be about. There are always those who would limit our right to say whatever comes into our pretty little heads and for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes because it’s just inconvenient if we do randomly splutter something true but unfashionable. Sometimes simply because there are always those who insist that some things just shouldn’t be said.
At which point we’ve this vile creature:
German holocaust denier Ursula Haverbeck has been sentenced to two and a half years in prison after the country’s highest court ruled that denying the mass murder of Jews during Nazi Germany is not covered by the right to free speech and “threatens public peace”.
Haverbeck, who is known as the ‘Nazi-Grandma’, was convicted last May for publishing a series of articles in which she insisted that the Holocaust and murder of Jews at Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland are not “historically proven”.
In Germany, denying the Holocaust constitutes a crime of incitement to hatred and carries a prison sentence of up to five years.
No, holocaust denial should not be a crime although we can all understand the reasons why it is in that particular country. Holocaust denial is factually wrong but that’s not the limit to which free speech should be subject. Immediate incitement to violence perhaps, libel certainly (a civil code violation, not a criminal one) but truth? No, for look at what the court then goes on to say:
But in their ruling, the high court judges found that the right to free speech does not protect the denial of the Holocaust.
“The dissemination of untrue and deliberately false statements of fact can not contribute to the development of public opinion and thus do not fall in the remits of protection for free speech”, the judges wrote in a statement.
You can fit any limitation upon free speech you like into that definition. Imagine, as was true in large parts of the world for half of last century, that you argue that markets are better than planning, that’s not conducive to the development of public opinion in support of building communism through socialism, is it? Or that you say that women tend to prefer jobs other than coding which is why there are few female coders? There are absolutely those who would insist that this is not conducive to developing public opinion – James Damore found that out.
Once we try to shoehorn free speech rights into the straitjacket of truth we then end up with the question of “Whose Truth?” Which is really rather the problem that the idea of free speech is trying to combat, isn’t it?
The Holocaust was a vile crime, as was the Holodomor, as were the Gulags, as were so many other episodes and events in human history. But we’ve still got to allow the nutters to deny their existence because if we don’t then it will be the truths about the next one which are suppressed.