Free speech means freedom for the thought we hate

Anthony Lewis 'Freedom for the Thought that we Hate' book cover, via Basic Books websiteFreedom of expression matters most where the expression in question is unpopular: if it it is to mean anything, it must mean “freedom for the thought that we hate” (US v Schwimmer 279 US 644, 655 (1929) Holmes J); it covers not only mainstream ideas which hardly need protection, but also those that “offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population” (Handyside v United Kingdom 5493/72 [1976] ECHR 5 (7 December 1976) [49]). That is why this blog has defended the right to freedom of expression especially when it involves unpopular opinions or unpopular speakers.

There are no more unpopular ideas than the denial of the Holocaust, and there are no more unpopular speakers than David Irving. Even here, in my view, we should give speech a chance: the best way to ensure that we never forget the Holocaust is to debate it at every turn, not to suppress speech from Irving’s ilk. The Oxford Union got good headlines last year when it invited Irving to debate about freedom of expression. Now it seems that NUI, Galway’s Literary and Debating Society are about to repeat the trick. From the Galway Advertiser [links added]:

Controversial historian David Irving to speak at NUIG?

By Kernan Andrews

David Irving, the highly controversial British historian who spent three years in an Austrian prison under Holocaust Denial Legislation, may be speaking at NUI, Galway’s Literary and Debating Society in March.

‘The Lit and Deb’, as the society is popularly known, has been in correspondence with Mr Irving and he has indicated that he wants to visit NUIG and speak in a debate about his theories.

However, given the nature of Mr Irving’s views, the society will be putting the decision of whether or not to accept him as their guest, to a vote of society members, preceded by an open debate on Thursday January 22.

The debate will be entitled That This House Would Allow David Irving to Speak at This House and will be held in the Kirwan Theatre at 7pm. John Kelleher, the Irish Film Classification Officer, will speak in support of Mr Irving’s right to speak. Derek Doyle, former auditor of UCC’s Philosophical Society, will oppose.

The Lit and Deb’s chief aim is “the provision of a forum for free speech in NUI Galway, where students can address issues of topical and perennial importance without fear of persecution”.

Society auditor Dan Colley said: “There are few people who have tested the boundaries of the right to free speech more than David Irving. This debate is a referendum, of sorts, to see where our members think those boundaries of free speech in university lie.”

It seems that at the January 22 debate, the House voted in favour of Iriving’s speaking later in the year. I thoroughly approve. But, come on guys, don’t be so po-faced. You may indeed be interested in testing the boundaries of free speech, but the controversy is welcome publicity for the Lit & Deb, too; right?