It cannot be said too often that a belief in free speech means
defending the rights of people we disagree with. Those whose views are
agreeable to the majority are never in much danger. Free speech must
protect bigoted, wrong-headed and offensive speech, or it protects
nothing.

That is why the three-year jail sentence handed down overnight in Austria on Holocaust-denier David Irving is so disturbing. It would be hard to find a clearer case of penalising someone purely on the basis of their opinions.

Of course, Irving’s opinions were false – even he now admits that,
although what he really thinks about the Holocaust is still anyone’s
guess. But meeting his noxious views with laws instead of facts just
adds to them the allure of martyrdom. (According to The Guardian
he has been “deluged by fan mail”.) People have gone to the stake for
much weirder views than Irving’s – does anyone really think he will
change his mind as a result of a prison term?

One of Irving’s strongest opponents, Deborah Lipstadt, whom he
unsuccessfully sued for libel in 2000, put it very well: “I am not
happy when censorship wins, and I don’t believe in winning battles via
censorship”, she told the BBC. “The way of fighting Holocaust deniers
is with history and with truth.”

Austria’s laws against Holocaust denial, like Germany’s, were an
emergency measure enacted shortly after World War II. The threat of a
Nazi revival could then be reasonably regarded as a “clear and present
danger” that would override concerns about free speech. But to make the
same argument today is just nonsense.

“Free David Irving” doesn’t have the same sort of cachet that, say,
“Free Nelson Mandela” had. But while he stays in jail, Europe’s claim
to be the home of free speech will ring hollow.

Peter Fray

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