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Some who are now calling on governments to censor expressions that are deemed offensive to Muslims point to the fact that some European governments do censor Holocaust-denial speech. It is false comparison. First, only a tiny number of governments—most particularly Germany, which was responsible for the Holocaust— censor Holocaust-denial speech. The vast majority of countries, including the United States, impose no such censorship. As far as I know no Muslim or Arab country censors Holocaust-denial speech. To the contrary, several such countries, led by Iran, promote such hate speech. Second, the Holocaust is a fact that no reasonable historian can dispute. The kinds of views that have caused the recent violence are expressions of opinion regarding an historical character about which historians vigorously disagree. Finally, I for one would like to see an end to the censorship of Holocaust-denial speech. Let those like Ahmadinejad who insist on lying about the history of European Jewry be defeated in the marketplace of ideas. Truth does not need censorship to defend it.
So let us not allow those who employ violence to initiate a debate about the limits of free speech. Democracies should not allow themselves to be held hostage to violent extremists. Having said that, freedom of speech also requires decent people to condemn those who abuse freedom by needlessly insulting the religious beliefs of others or by being insensitive to the havoc they may be causing by exercising their freedom of speech. This film should be condemned in the marketplace of ideas, but the writings of Salman Rushdie and the publishing of political cartoons should not be condemned.
Individuals have the right to pick and choose which expressions to condemn, which to praise and which to say nothing about. Governments, however, must remain neutral as to the content of expression. And governments must protect the rights of all to express even the most despicable of views. Finally, the international community must use its collective power to apprehend and punish anyone who commits violence in reaction to expressions with which they disagree. Being offended by freedom of speech should never be regarded as a justification for violence.
An earlier and shorter version of this blog appeared in Ha’aretz.
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