Toronto, April 13, 2000
Free to be wrong, free to be ruined
David Irving's views fall under their own weight
The infamous British historian David Irving forgot to remember what Oscar Wilde learned to his great regret about libel actions: the existence of a defence. Mr. Irving contested allegations that he purposefully distorted history to serve his deeply anti-Semitic views. This week in London, a judge concluded:
"The charges which I have found to be substantially true include the charges that Mr. Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reason he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude toward and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism."
If Mr. Irving has faced repeated allegations that his history is bunk, he now has the confirmation of a court on the matter. And he has a court order to pay $4.5-million in costs for the honour.
All this is very good, but it is important to note that Mr. Irving has not been found guilty of a crime in the United Kingdom. Rather, the object of his suit, U.S. author Deborah Lipstadt, has been found innocent of libel in calling Mr. Irving to account. Ms. Lipstadt was understandably elated at the trial's outcome, which cements Mr. Irving's darkened reputation. At the same time, she opposes the route chosen by Canada, Germany and Switzerland, of criminalizing what Mr. Irving says and writes about the Holocaust. "I don't think those laws really work. They tend to make martyrs of the deniers."
Indeed they do. Free societies exist on the premise that freedom of thought and expression are fundamental human rights. They are not granted by the state, and do not exist at the pleasure of the state. More, freedom of thought and expression are essential to the progress of society, to the democratic process and to the liberty of individuals. Most other legal and political rights depend for their very existence on free expression.
Individuals being what they are, however, free expression sometimes leads to distortions, lies and malicious statements. How should we deal with them in the context of a fundamental human right?
Happily, the best means is free expression itself to reply, remonstrate, argue and refute. Free expression offers the cure to its own disease because truth ultimately prevails in fair battles against lies. Democracies cannot effectively function without this faith.
Libel laws create a legal avenue of defence for those who feel personally harmed by free expression, who lack faith in the efficacy of public reply and desire a more formal, third-party accounting of the truth. Too many people resort to libel too easily, and Mr. Irving chose this means to defend himself against Ms. Lipstadt, only to find that he had no defence.
The creation by the state of criminal prohibitions against the expression of opinions that offend or incite hatred and contempt without specific calls to action brings far too great a formal power to bear against far too fundamental a human right. Criminalization of an honestly held opinion contradicts the very core of free expression and undermines the authority of a democracy. As Ms. Lipstadt notes, it serves to drive corrosive views underground where the normal correctives of a free society cannot come into play, and where prior state restraint fuels the paranoia so often involved.
Mr. Irving has hanged himself, by far the most effective form of punishment, and exceedingly well deserved. He should not be barred from Canada or prosecuted for expressing his ridiculous views here. Faith in free speech has been sustained.
Thursday, April 13, 2000