Freedom Of Speech Means Freedom To Offend

Writing in today’s Washington Post, George Will uses the example of the recent prosecution of historian David Irving for the crime of denying the truth of the Holocaust to make the point that freedom of speech sometimes means letting some truly offensive people speak their minds.

In 1989, in two speeches in Austria, Irving said, among much else, that only 74,000 Jews died of natural causes in work camps and millions were spirited to Palestine after the war. An arrest warrant was issued. Last November Irving was arrested when he came to Austria to address some right-wing students. Last week, while Europe was lecturing Muslims about the virtue of tolerating free expression by Danish cartoonists, Irving was sentenced to three years in prison.

Is David Irving wrong ? We know without a doubt he is. Is he offensive ? To those whose family members died in Hitler’s gas chambers or died on the beaches of Normandy to free Europe from Nazi tyranny ? Absolutely. Should he have the right to say what he says ? Without question, yes.

What dangers do the likes of Irving pose? Holocaust denial is the occupation of cynics and lunatics who are always with us but are no reason for getting governments into the dangerous business of outlawing certain arguments. Laws criminalizing Holocaust denial open a moral pork barrel for politicians: Many groups can be pandered to with speech restrictions. Why not a law regulating speech about slavery? Or Stalin’s crimes?

Exactly. And what about the hypocrisy that Europe displays ? What right do they have to complain about the Muslim reaction to the Mohammed cartoons when they are putting a man in jail because he dares to right a history book that makes conclusions they don’t like ?

I am not a supporter of David Irving, but he has as much right to say what he says as Danish and French newspapers have to publish cartoons making fun of extremist Muslims.

Things are much better here in the United States right ? After all, we’ve got a First Amendment and no law against denying the truth of the Holocaust ? Don’t be so sure about it.

Just consider these examples:

For several decades in America, the aim of much of the jurisprudential thought about the First Amendment’s free-speech provision has been to justify contracting its protections. Freedom of speech is increasingly “balanced” against “competing values.”


On campuses, speech codes have abridged the right of free expression to protect the right — for such it has become — of certain preferred groups to not be offended. The NCAA is truncating the right of some schools to express their identity using mascots deemed “insensitive” to the feelings of this or that grievance group. Campaign finance laws ration the amount and control the timing and content of political speech.


To protect the fragile flower of womanhood, a judge has ruled that use of gender-based terms such as “foreman” or “draftsman” could create a “hostile environment” and hence constitute sexual harassment.

And then there’s an example that’s been in the news lately that Will does not cite. Over the past several weeks, several states have taken steps to prevent protesters from picketing at funerals, a move propelled by the fact that an objectively offensive group of extreme Christians have been staging protests at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq claiming that the deaths America is experiencing in Iraq are God’s punishment for tolerating homosexuality. Offensive ? Absolutely ? Should they have the right to be offensive ? I can’t see any reason why not.

Freedom of speech means that, sometimes, we will hear some truly offensive things. When government starts regulating speech based on the fact that it may offend, though, it diminishes freedom for everyone.