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If You Want To Combat Hate, Don’t Outlaw Hate Speech—Counter It With Better Ideas

Europe’s approach to banning expression lets people feel good but does nothing to eradicate racism

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Supporters of the far-right NPD political party wave flags as they demonstrate in the Schoeneweide district of Berlin, Germany, on May 1, 2013. (Carsten Koall)
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While he acknowledges his support for the criminalization of advocating homosexuality, Lively contends that he never advocated criminalizing homosexuality itself, never mind imposing capital punishment. Moreover, he claims, the case represents an assault on his constitutionally protected right to free speech—speech that included ravings about how gays seek to molest children and undermine society. As tempting as it is to blame Lively for the oppression that has been inflicted upon gays in Uganda, to punish him for merely delivering antigay tirades—“They asked for my opinion, and I gave it,” he told NPR in 2009—blurs the line between constitutionally protected speech and actual acts of violence. It would also let the true culprits—the Ugandan officials who wrote the law—off the hook.

We see the same effect at work in Europe, where Holocaust-denial laws serve as a convenient tool for societies unwilling to take up the hard task of historical retrospection and recrimination. In 2005, the British historian David Irving was arrested in the southern Austrian state of Styria over a speech he had delivered in 1989, for which he eventually pleaded guilty to “trivializing, grossly playing down, and denying the Holocaust.” Throwing the already disgraced, discredited, and marginalized Irving into jail certainly served the purposes of the Austrian government and wider society, which could boast to the world that it would not tolerate any form of neo-Nazism. Yet only six years earlier, Austrians voted the far right Freedom Party into a coalition government, a move that led the European Union into taking the unprecedented step of imposing sanctions on one of its own members. The Freedom Party was and remains infamous for its xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and whitewashing Austrian complicity in the Holocaust; its late leader Jörg Haider had a habit of either downplaying the crimes of, or outright praising, Nazis.

In other words, banning Holocaust denial and throwing those who espouse it into jail hasn’t diminished the political inheritors of Austrian fascism. In fact, prohibiting public expression of neo-Nazism comfortably coexists with widespread nostalgia for Nazism. To this day, the Freedom Party remains a force to contend with, regularly earning over 20 percent of the vote in nationwide elections; it is currently the third-largest party in the country. A poll conducted last year by the Viennese newspaper Der Standard found that a majority of Austrians—54 percent—believe that the Nazis themselves would win an election were they allowed to compete today. Lest one think that this result indicated a general fear among Austrians about the fascistic inclinations of their countrymen rather than actual, widespread fascistic inclinations among the populace, a full 42 percent of Austrians believe life “wasn’t all bad under the Nazis.”

Throwing someone in jail for stating false information is part and parcel of an Austrian culture of silence. Rather than interrogate their own historical complicity with the Holocaust and work to unwind the myths they have spun about themselves, the greatest of which is that they were Hitler’s first victims, Austrians would rather lock up the most extreme and easily refutable manifestation of neo-Nazi sentiment, an action that effectively grants the rest of their polity a clean bill of health.

To witness the perverse consequences of the European approach to hate speech, and the deleterious effects mimicking them in the United States could have, we need only return to the German Antifa brigades and the martyrs they made out of two misguided twenty-somethings. Following her public shaming, Hanover University student and National Democratic Party activist Christina Krieger emerged to say that her ordeal was “the best advertisement for the party.” And after the screaming Santa Clauses descended upon Michael Brück in Bochum, most students expressing an opinion on the university’s Facebook page directed their ire not at the right-wing extremist in their midst—but rather at the Antifa activists calling for him to be expelled.

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If You Want To Combat Hate, Don’t Outlaw Hate Speech—Counter It With Better Ideas

Europe’s approach to banning expression lets people feel good but does nothing to eradicate racism

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