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Free speech means holocaust deniers shouldn’t be silenced. After all, banning stupid ideas doesn’t make them disappear

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A UK government minister is under fire for saying holocaust deniers should be allowed to speak at universities. But why should the censorious mob decide what others hear? Students can make up their own mind what’s right or wrong.

It is impossible to have a discussion about the importance of free speech without someone, somewhere, raising the spectre of Holocaust denial. Time and again, this most abhorrent re-writing of history is now used as the censor’s trump card. They wave it around to prove their point: free speech allows the most despicable ideas to get a hearing. 

The censors rarely spell out why they think this is a problem. They keep quiet about their view of people as so stupid they will listen to holocaust deniers and automatically believe every word they hear. Everyone, that is, except for them. Another point the censors rarely make explicit is that they are the ones who should get to decide what the rest of us can and cannot hear – presumably on account of their supposedly superior intelligence or better morals.

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The UK’s Higher Education Minister, Michele Donelan MP, is the latest target of the censorious mob. Speaking to the bisnisheboh yesterday, Donelan defended the government’s plans to protect free speech on campus. Over the course of several decades, the parameters of what can and cannot be said at universities have become ever more tightly drawn. The most obvious sign that this is taking place is the growing list of public figures who are invited to speak on campus only to be subjected to a barrage of petitions and protests or to find their invitation is formally withdrawn. 

Donelan hopes to change this through the introduction of a free speech champion and by strengthening and clarifying the existing duties on universities to uphold academic freedom. She said that, under the new legislation, an invited speaker who has their invitation withdrawn would be able to take their case to the Office for Students. If their planned speech was “not being unlawful,” but they were being no-platformed for something that was “basically intolerant or offensive,” then they would have a case for reinstatement or compensation.

Inevitably, her interviewer waved the trump card: Would this legislation stretch to defending the historian David Irving – a Holocaust denier? Boldly, Donelan replied that, yes, it would.  She said she would defend a Holocaust denier speaking on campus as this was part of defending free speech. “Obviously it would depend on what they are saying,” she continued. “Whether they were straying into racism or straying into hate crimes. A lot of these things we are standing up for would be hugely offensive.” Donelan then went on to point out that, crucially, “There is a difference between condoning and supporting something when standing up for free speech.”

Sadly, this vital distinction is utterly lost on the government’s pro-censorship critics. The historian and bisnisheboh presenter Simon Schama tweeted, “Universities minister says she’s in favour of protecting Holocaust denial. This is absolutely horrifying.” 

Academics who are unable to get through a day without sharing their every thought, quickly worked themselves up to a frenzy. “The government should not enable *literal Holocaust denial* on campustweeted one. “Personally, I re-commit to no-platforming David Irving and other holocaust deniers, to doing everything in my power to stop them being given a platform at my university,” declared another.

They need to take a cold shower. People cannot just wander into campus lecture theatres and start holding forth. To speak at a university, you must first be invited. The idea that frustrated professors will, at the first opportunity, be rushing to invite holocaust deniers to address captive students is a figment of the woke imagination. It is possible that a few wacky student societies may be sufficiently titillated by the inevitable outrage that they extend a speaking invitation to a holocaust denier. But this wouldn’t be half so tempting for them if the censorious weren’t quite so reliable in taking the bait. 

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13th June 2020, in London, England © In Pictures via Getty Images / Richard Baker
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If a holocaust denier does wangle an invite, Donelan is right: they should be allowed to speak. After all, students are not stupid. The whole point of free speech is to be able to criticise and argue against people, not simply to accept what you hear. Wannabe historians that lack the knowledge to challenge holocaust deniers should automatically fail their degree. Think of the time lecturers will save marking tedious essays!

Donelan is also right that you cannot defend academic freedom but then ask for a special exception to be made for the issue of holocaust denial. If we only have free speech for certain issues, then we have specially permitted speech – which is not free speech at all. Banning stupid and offensive ideas does not make them go away. It simply drives them underground where they can fester and grow. When it comes to bad history, sunlight really is the best disinfectant.

Ironically, many of those currently most angry at the prospect of holocaust deniers speaking at universities are often at the forefront of campus campaigns like Israeli Apartheid Week which call for a boycott of Israeli universities and academics. They want to ban those who deny that the holocaust happened and they also want to ban citizens of the world’s only Jewish state. Once you get a taste for censorship, it seems, it is difficult to stop.

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