Give speech a chance

BBC News logo via the BBC siteGuardian Unlimited logo, via their site.Three free speech stories in the BBC News and Guardian websites caught my eye this morning. Indeed, the first two were almost side by side on both sites. In the first, there is widespread dismay at the arrest of a British school teacher in the Sudan accused of insulting Islam’s Prophet, after she allowed her pupils to name a teddy bear Muhammad (BBC | Guardian). In the second, protests are expected later outside the Oxford Union (see also wikipedia) when Nick Griffin (see also wikipedia), Chairman of the British National Party, and David Irving (see also BBC | Holocaust History | Kizkor | wikipedia), Holocaust denier, arrive for a forum on The Limits of Free Speech (BBC | Guardian).

There is an inconsistency here; and the incongruous but serendipitous placement of these two stories side by side demonstrates it: we cannot be outraged both at the arrest of the teacher and at the speech of Nick Griffin and David Irving. Society cannot have it both ways, it is not free to pick and choose which speech to support. Those in favour of speech must afford it both to the teacher and to Griffin and Irving. Of course, those against speech would deny it both to the teacher and to Griffin and Irving. But if the arrest of the teacher doesn’t illustrate the absurdity of that position, the third story on the BBC and Guardian websites that caught my eye this morning graphically illustrates the danger of repressing disfavoured speech: it all too easily and rapidly leads to totalitarianism. Former world chess champion and Russian opposition figure Garry Kasparov has been jailed for five days, as he and other opposition figures were detained during rallies organised by Kasparov’s Other Russia coalition (BBC | Guardian).

Indeed, the controversy over these three otherwise unrelated events demonstrates the importance of the process of free speech. Those who are outraged at the arrest of the teacher in the Sudan (Guardian site on the Sudan) are exercising a freedom of expression they insist ought to be made available to her as well. According to the BBC, colleagues of Gillian Gibbons, 54, from Liverpool, said she made an “innocent mistake” by letting the six and seven-year-olds choose the name. 20 of them, from a class of 23, chose that as their favourite name, but Ms Gibbons was arrested on Sunday at her home inside the school premises after a number of parents complained to Sudan’s Ministry of Education. The Guardian reports that she has been charged with blasphemy, an offence punishable with up to three months in prison and a fine.

In February 2006, Irving was convicted in Austria of holocaust denial (Jewish Virtual Library | wikipedia), and sentenced to three years in prison, but he was (controversially) released on probation by an appeals court in December 2006. This is not the first time that the Oxford Union has invited Irving to speak: plans to have him speak in 2001 were cancelled after student uproar. But whilst there is some vocal disgust this time round, the forum looks likely to go ahead tonight. This is as it should be. Luke Tryl, the President of the Oxford Union, in a message to members of the Union, argues that Griffin and Irving

… are not being given a platform to extol their views, but are coming to talk about the limits of free speech. What is more, they will be speaking in the context of a forum in which there will be other speakers to challenge and attack their views in a head to head manner and with the opportunity for students to challenge them from the floor.

The invitation was discussed at the time of the first flurry of press reports (Guardian | Chronicle of Higher Education | European Jewish Press) a little while ago by Deborah Lipstadt on her always-excellent blog. She has more than a passing or academic interest in Iriving. In 2000, he sought to sue her for defamation for her criticism of his historical revisionism of the Holocaust in her book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1994) (Amazon). However, her defence of justification (truth) succeeded (see Irving v Penguin Books and Deborah E Lipstadt [2000] EWHC QB 115 (11 April 2000); Penguin books have published the judgment as a book; on the trial, see the excellent Holocaust Denial on Trial and the Guardian). Leave to appeal was refused; and Irving, unable to pay the costs of the action, was declared bankrupt. Lipstadt wrote about the trial in History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving (Ecco, 2005) (Amazon). Nevertheless, even she did not call for his exclusion from the debate; instead, on her blog, she argued:

.. while I think the invitation should never have been issued, I tend to think a strong campaign against the invitation should NOT be mounted. All it will do is make Irving look like a martyr rather than the reviled character has become.

She has an excellent series of posts on this issue as it has evolved over the last month or so, well worth reading in its entirety, especially her discussion of the muddled reasoning in Tryl’s statement. Two particular elements of today’s furore stand out. First, the BBC reports that Dr Julian Lewis, Conservative Member of Parliament for New Forest East, has resigned his life membership of the debating union in protest (radio interview here). Second, according to the Independent:

Trevor Phillips [profiles from BBC | Observer | wikipedia], chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, accused the event’s organisers of staging a “juvenile provocation” and reducing freedom of speech to “a silly parlour game”. He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday: “As a former president of the National Union of Students, I’m ashamed that this has happened” [full interview here].


Irving is not the only holocaust denier in the news at the moment. Ernest Zundel (see also adl, updated here | Nizkor | wikipedia) was convicted of holocaust denial in Germany and sentenced to five years in prison (more here, here and here); and his appeal to the German Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof) was unsuccessful (more here and here). He had been convicted under a similar law in Canada, but that provision was held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada in R v Zundel [1992] 2 SCR 731 (27 August 1992). However, he was subsequently deported to Germany, where he was convicted under the German holocaust denial legislation the constitutionality of which was upheld in the Auschwitzlüge case BVerfGE 90, 241 (13 April 1994) (excellent discussion here). I have, earlier on this blog, not been a fan of German proposals to ban holocaust denial across the EU, on the grounds that it is better to remember the Holocaust, and explain it to every audience, discuss it at every opportunity, and refute the deniers at every turn. Hence, rather than jail or ban Irving or prevent him speaking, there are better ways: protest, debate him, or simply ignore him. The best thing those who are disgusted by Irving at the Union can do is simply to stay away tonight. But we must never forget the Holocaust, and it must not happen again. Hence, for example, today’s Independent reports that Groups will use Holocaust Day to highlight mass murder in Darfur:

The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust will use its national day on 27 January to demand tougher action to stop atrocities in Sudan. The official charity was set up with the backing of the Government to learn the lessons of the Holocaust against six million Jews in the Second World War.

Giving voice to the victims of the Sudan regime – whether they be Darfuri or unfortunate English teachers – is an important exercise of the right of free speech. In its absense lies totalitarian repression, such as we see in Russia today. Kasparov (wikipedia) (see CNN story) was one of many arrested at a demonstration in Moscow on Saturday, and nearly 200 activists were later arrested in St Petersburg, where a crowd had gathered in Palace Square chanting “Russia without Putin”.

Of course, debate doesn’t always work, as the collapse of a public debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Oxford Union earlier this month demonstrates, but it can, and it is better to try than not. In the end, then, in all of these cases, all I am saying is give speech a chance.

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