Denial vs. Free Speech

A week ago today the French Senate voted 127-86 to make it illegal to deny or “outrageously minimize” mass killings that the French have officially deemed to be “genocides,” with violators facing a year in prison and a fine of up to 45,000 €. The vote brought immediate condemnation from the government of Turkey (already at odds with France, whose president, Nicolas Sarkozy, opposes Turkish admission to the European Union), which officially denies that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the middle of World War I constitute a genocide.

And indeed, critics in Turkey, France, and elsewhere alleged that the law was an attempt by Sarkozy’s party to garner support from the half-million French voters of Armenian descent as a new presidential election approaches in the spring.

Timothy Garton Ash
Licensed by Creative Commons (Carl-Johan Sveningsson)

And at least one of these critics, the British historian-journalist Timothy Garton Ash, saw a larger problem with the law. Writing January 18 in The Guardian (the same op-ed piece was published the next day in the L.A. Times — H/T Ralph E. Luker), he urged French senators to vote against it

…in the name of free speech, the freedom of historical inquiry and article 11 of France’s path-breaking 1789 declaration of the rights of man and citizen (“the free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious rights …”).

Like most historians (myself included), Garton Ash would call the killings of the Armenians a genocide, and he has little sympathy for the Turkish government, whose prosecution of those who speak of the Armenian genocide promotes, in his words, “state-ordained falsehood.” And Garton Ash dismissed the law’s actual ability to stop the spread of genocide denial in a digital age (since such views “are just a couple more mouse-clicks away”).

Yet he sees in the French genocide denial law (whose passage happened to coincide with the SOPA debate in this country) a threat to free speech and academic inquiry:

So this is but the latest instance of a much wider challenge. What should be the limits of free expression in the internet age? What should be the free speech norms of an interconnected world? And who should set them? These are among the questions being addressed in a project called Free Speech Debate that we have just launched at Oxford University. Among the 10 draft principles we offer for debate, criticism and revision, one is especially relevant to the Armenian genocide controversy. It says: “We allow no taboos in the discussion and dissemination of knowledge.”

What do you think??

Would you “allow no taboos in the discussion and dissemination of knowledge,” including historical inquiry?

Or do you think it’s acceptable for laws like the French one or the many other anti-denial laws in Europe to limit speech that challenges widely-shared understandings of historical tragedies like the Holocaust or the slaughter of the Armenians?

One thought on “Denial vs. Free Speech

  1. I think that anti-denial laws only set precedents that will make it a “majority rules” society on many other levels. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but it’s not that far-fetched to see this sort of thinking spread to other dissenting opinions, including many religious ones. Obviously it’s frustrating to see/hear people deny something like the Holocaust, but at what point do we have to just accept that they believe a lie? I get the idea behind it, but it seems like a law this specific could easily be altered to be much more general as new circumstances arise.

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