The best disinfectant

Posted: Feb 23, 2006 12:05 AM

Free speech is America's most important export. Our First Amendment is unique in the world; even our English cousins tolerate "prior restraint" in certain circumstances. The Europeans, who do not understand the guarantee as we do, are often only free to express government-approved speech. Over the past few weeks, we have seen that how free speech is defined depends on who defines free.

In an avant-garde "action theater" in Frankfurt, for example, one member of the cast did what actors everywhere have always done in their dreams. He yelled at a newspaper critic in the front row, tore the notepad from his hands and dropped a dead swan in his lap.

The actor made his point. "Never in the 30 years of my career as a theatre critic have I felt so besmirched, so abused, so insulted," wrote Gerhard Stadelmaier in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, "and never have I felt such deep sorrow about the state of the theater." He was probably right on both counts. The mayor threatened to turn the city's lawyer loose on the actor, and the theater said the actor had been "terminated in an amiable way." Germans, who are forbidden to say a lot of things, debated whether this was government interference in "free expression." Others said it was less coercion on the theater's part than common sense exacted against a misbehaving actor. (Basketball players, take note.)

With Europe recoiling from riots set off by the publication of Danish cartoon depictions of Mohammed, Belgian newspapers descended to tastelessness in the name of free speech with a cartoon depicting Adolf Hitler in bed with Anne Frank, presumably to show Arabs there are no sacred cows in the press room. Jews had not rioted by press time.

The most celebrated example of suppression of speech occurred in Vienna, where David Irving, the historian who has made a career of denying the Holocaust ("a swastika-wielding provocateur," one critic calls him) pleaded guilty to a "mistake" in asserting that there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. In his defense, he took refuge behind the demands of historical research. "Obviously I've changed my views," he told reporters at his trial. "History is a constantly growing tree. The more you know, the more documents become available, the more you learn, and I have learned a lot since 1989."

This defense is disingenuous by a man who is an energetic researcher, and he was throwing himself on the mercy of the court. He was sentenced to three years in prison; he could have got 10. Such a result is all but inexplicable in America, where our unique guarantee of free speech, even odious speech, is absolute. Denying the Holocaust is recognized everywhere as the work of an idiot, but it's a crime in Austria and in several other European countries. Prosecutions sometimes satisfy survivors of Hitler's evil, who yearn for one last measure of justice, and the skinheads are pleased because they get a martyr.

David Irving ostentatiously carried his most controversial book, "Hitler's War," into the courtroom and held it aloft for all to see. He had worked on his memoirs in prison, waiting trial, and joked that he might call them "Mein Krieg" (My War), a reference (wink, wink) to Hitler's "Mein Kampf." A showman like Irving can rally neo-Nazi anti-Semites, but modern hatred of the Jews springs less from World War II-era attitudes than hatred of Israel and the West, with Muslim immigrants eager to join Palestinian apologists and the intellectuals of the embittered Left.

But no matter how infuriating such hatred tempts us to suppress speech, government regulation of thought and speech is the crime far worse. When Tony Blair was duly tempted, and introduced legislation making it a crime for Englishmen to show "disrespect" of religious faith, hundreds of churchmen, rabbis and even a few moderate imams rose to oppose him, noting that even repeating quotations from the Bible or the Koran could be criminalized by the law.

Eleven well-known French writers signed a petition in Le Monde demanding the right to make fun of whomever they want: "There is something rather disconcerting about having to remind people in France 2006 that we have the right to commit blasphemy, that picking on the parish priest has long been a national sport." Voltaire once boasted that he made only one prayer to God, and kept it short: "'O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous.' And God granted it."

Free speech liberates the truth. A team of historians, sponsored by Dresdner Bank, Germany's second largest, issued a report recently describing in detail the bank's extensive collaboration with the Third Reich. Humiliation followed. Louis Brandeis, the great (Jewish) justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, got it exactly right: "Sunlight is the best disinfectant."