First Amendment Abroad

On Monday, an Austrian court sentenced British historian David Irving to a three-year prison term after he pleaded guilty to denying the existence of the Holocaust in a speech he gave in 1989. According to a 1992 Austrian law, it is illegal to “ [deny], grossly [play] down, [approve] or [try] to excuse the National Socialist genocide or other National Socialist crimes against humanity in a print publication, in broadcast or other media.” This prison term comes immediately on the heels of an outcry in the Arab world about an offensive cartoon depicting Muslim suicide bombers. The Danish newspaper responsible for publishing the cartoon stringently defended their decision, citing their right to free speech. While Irving is undeniably wrong in his assessment of the Holocaust, his penalty should be scorn from scholars and embarassment, not imprisonment. It is a basic tenet of civilized society to protect all forms of freedom of speech from government interference. Our own First Amendment states that no law should be passed, “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” This protection is not complete, however; it does not protect the rights of someone who shouts “fire!” in a crowded building or traffics in child pornography, but it does provides freedom of expression in nearly every other circumstance. The situation in the United States is understandably different than in Austria. The nation of Hitler’s birth must feel the need to make amends for the horrors of the Holocaust and the Second World War. However, any law restricting free speech, no matter how heinous, should be struck down so long as the expression in question incites no other violence. In this case, Irving’s remarks have had little effect since they were uttered in 1989. This lack of reaction reveals something critical to our understanding of the entire issue of free speech: the world of ideas is a marketplace. Those ideas that have the most credibility and evidence to back them will rise to the top and become generally accepted knowledge. These ideas, in effect, have more consumers who are willing to devote the time needed to understand and apply them. The opposite is also true, as those ideas with the lowest credibility will quickly fall to the bottom of the barrel because few people are willing to, in effect, purchase those ideas. This is exactly what has happened with Irving. Of course there are some people who have their own agenda and want anything they can find to support it, and those people support Irving’s work. The man, however, is clearly not a respected intellectual among his peers and the public. The Austrian position on this issue is completely understandable. They, like their German neighbors, want to prove to the world that they are sorry about the Holocaust. Unfortunately, when they go so far as to place historians in prison, their efforts end up being counterproductive. This incident immediately invokes German efforts during the Second World War by the Nazis to place in prisons and concentration camps authors who disagreed with Hitler. Obviously, this issue is far from the same thing, but this kind of censorship does not reflect well for a society aiming to be progressive. While David Irving’s words were undoubtedly offensive to many, he has since apologized. As quoted in The New York Times, Irving related, “I made a mistake when I said there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz.” Clearly, Irving was wrong, but the world, and Austria especially, must ask themselves if a man should be required to serve a three year prison sentence for what he once said.