Last week, in the course of an otherwise execrable polemic
against critics of the government’s proposed new sedition laws, Piers
Akerman made a valid point. When the free speech of Christian
extremists was threatened by Victoria’s Racial and Religious Tolerance
Act, he said, “None of those now protesting the updating of the
sedition laws raised their voices.”
It’s true that many defenders of free speech are too selective. So
let’s pause to note another case where a worthy principle is embodied
in an unworthy representative: Holocaust-denier David Irving, currently
imprisoned in Austria on a charge of, well, denying the Holocaust.
Irving is a fraud who deserves little sympathy. But free speech must
not be confined to causes we agree with; the unpopular and the odious
have their rights as well. To use laws and prison sentences against
them is both wrong and counter-productive: martyrdom just gives Irving
and his like further publicity, and gives credibility to his claim that
his opponents have something to hide.
Even the best of principles can yield in extreme cases, and in the
immediate aftermath of World War II it made some sense for Germany and
Austria to enact laws criminalising pro-Nazi opinion. But that is 60
years ago; Irving and his fellow apologists for genocide now pose no
threat to anybody. False ideas should be fought not with repression,
but with better ideas.
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