I also don’t have to prove to you the world is round
Magistrate Bjoern Joensson
The nuisance with writing pieces about free speech and enjoying the esteem, if not self-importance, of adherence to such lofty ideals, comes when faced with cases of vile speech you wish people wouldn’t utter.
Earlier this month a magistrate in Hamburg sentenced 87 year old Ursula Haverbeck to 10 months in jail for the crime of Holocaust denial.
She had made her offending comments in an interview outside the trial of ex-SS Sgt. Oskar Groening who, at 94, was sentenced to 4 years in jail after being found guilty of facilitating mass murder.
I mention the circumstances because upon hearing the news of Haverbeck’s verdict I was tempted to focus on the fact that an old woman was being sentenced to prison and thus avoid the difficultly of speaking up for her right to free expression. However, as I didn’t object to his going to prison due to age, and I did think about it at the time, I am not sure how strongly I can object to hers.
This is to say that the sentence concerns me less than the charge. Merely being unhappy with an old woman being in jail isn’t enough.
The crime of Holocaust denial came back into focus after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in January when several apologists for the killers chose to bring it up as an example of double standards. The cry of “look how you protect the Jew’s feelings but seek to trample on those of the poor Muslims” (I paraphrase), was heard many times. This complaint misses an obvious point, that the laws against denial of the Holocaust are not to spare Jewish feelings but to assist in the prevention of the growth in Fascist groups and to function as image-restoration and atonement from those countries, which understandably after WW2, could do with upping their virtue quotient. Regardless, it does serve as a good test of what advocates of free speech mean when they say ‘free’. I am yet to be convinced by anybody suggesting we should be free to express all opinions with the exception of that one.
The ‘world is round’ quote from the magistrate was given after he was challenged by the defendant to prove that what she denied had in fact occurred. His response, with its deliberate invocation of apparently the most obvious of all facts – that the Earth is round, is perfect for highlighting exactly what is wrong with Holocaust denial laws. Are you comfortable with a person declaring that something is so obvious he has no need to prove it before he then incarcerates a person for expressing the opposite opinion? In fact, a historic event is lower down the list of certainties than something which is currently observable which makes it even more obnoxious.
My objections to Holocaust denial laws are much the same as most people’s, they are:
1: Rather than hinder the rise of Fascist groups, the prohibition of opinion makes that opinion more tantalising to those who might be tempted to become a member of one. Statistical evidence of the ineffectiveness of these laws are discussed here.
2: Nazi power is long dead and the virtues signaled by these laws are less powerful than the virtues signaled from the consistent protection of the right to free speech.
3: I wish to deny murder-apologists their cheap equivalence and grievance which they profess at the expense of Jews who are cast as expecters special privileges.
4: Most of all, I won’t have anybody in a position of power, especially in a court where they command the coercive power of the state, claiming they don’t need to prove an assertion which is contingent to their justification for the use of that power.
Ursula Haverbeck is a victim of a bad law. She is somebody who requires the support of those advocating the right to have the free expression of opinion remain unmolested.
I’m not the hashtagging type, they’ll be no #JeSuisUsula or #IStandWithHaverbeck from me and I don’t expect to see it trending much from others. But I would expect to see this case brought up by somebody advocating a de facto blasphemy law at some point soon. If for no other reason, it is worth getting your support for Haverbeck out there before this occurs.