February 25, 2006

Denying the Holocaust and Satirizing Muhammad

Austria has just convicted a man for denying the Holocaust and sent him to jail for three years. There are now other Austrians objecting, saying the sentence was too lenient, and he should go to jail for ten years.

Using the same logic of justice, the Danish cartoonists who have defamed Muhammed should have their hands cut off or be beheaded.

Yes, there is substantial difference between going to jail for three years and being beheaded, but the end result is the same -- muzzling free speech.

I believe that denying the Holocaust is hideous and trying to inflame anti-Semitism by doing so is reprehensible. But I do not believe that someone who publicly claims the Holocaust did not happen should be prosecuted and jailed.

I remember almost 30 years ago being incensed when the ACLU defended the right of the National Socialist Party (the American Nazi party) to hold a rally in Skokie, Illinois, a community heavily populated by Nazi concentration camp survivors. A national debate swirled around these events, but the courts of the United States all agreed that the American Nazis had a right to march.

It made my stomach turn, but I was faced with the reality that I had to support their right to march or I could, some day, be surrendering my right to march to some tryant just like the Nazis who would prevent me from marching if they were in power.

European silence in the face of this conviction in Austria is shocking, especially while they are defending the right of the cartoonists in Denmark to satirize anyone they please. How is it different for the present-day Austrian government to send someone to jail for saying something the government does not permit, than for the Nazi-ruled Austrian government of 1942 to jail someone for saying something it didn't permit back then?

I don't want to paint the Austrian courts as tryannical; I do understand how Austrian history drives the Austrian law against Holocaust denial. But where do you draw the line? How can Austrians support the Danish cartoonists' rights to publish their cartoons allegedly defaming Muhammed (I assume millions of them do), but at the same time support a law in their own country which denies freedom of speech about the Holocaust? Where does the line get drawn? What about people who proclaim that the Pope is the devil? What about people who promote the idea that the world is flat? How about Muslims who believe that non-Muslims are infidels? How about born-again Christians who believe and proclaim publicly that as a non-born again Christian I am going to burn in hell for an eternity? Do they have that right to say that about me?

I know we have to have some reasonable restrictions on free speech, such as not being able to yell "fire" in a theater when there isn't one, but if we let the tyrants choose whom to jail or execute because they are saying things we oppose, then we have already given up our democratic rights to those who do not support the idea of free speech under any circumstances.

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