Limiting Free Speech (40): The Chilling Effect of Political Correctness

A few days ago, a senior US journalist by the name of Helen Thomas expressed the view that Jews needed to “get the hell out of Palestine” and return to their countries of historical origin (she named Germany and Poland, as well as “America”) (source).

Subsequently, a lot of folks expressed the view that she should resign or else be fired (source). She swiftly agreed. Now, forcing someone to resign because of an opinion, however stupid or disgusting this opinion may be, is likely to have an adverse effect on free speech, not only the freedom of speech of the person in question but of anyone else who may believe – rightly or wrongly – that his or her livelihood may be at stake because of certain opinions.

The forced retirement of Helen Thomas is further proof, if any were needed, that it’s still unacceptable, in public discourse, to be wrong in one’s opinions. I find that sad.

Thomas gave voice to an opinion which she then, almost immediately, retracted; no one, in the subsequent debate, defended the substance of her remarks. She was wrong; everybody, including Thomas, agrees on that point, and no real harm was done to anyone but Thomas when the video of her remarks surfaced.

But if you turn out to be wrong, even temporarily, even only once, on a hot-button issue, that’s enough for effective excommunication from polite society. That, to me, is chilling. (source)

(More on the chilling effect and on political correctness). A social chilling effect produced by political correctness may be as effective as state imposed censorship.

Of course, given her age (89), Helen Thomas may in fact not suffer any serious consequences from her forced retirement. But what happened to her can happen to others, and the mere risk of such a thing happening may be enough for some people – those with more to lose – to think again and decide that it’s perhaps better to shut up.

Now, none of this defense of Helen Thomas should be understood as a defense of what she actually said. Here’s a good quote explaining what exactly is wrong with what she said, if that isn’t immediately clear:

why the big deal over batty Helen Thomas? What is so especially offensive about her comments (comments that now seem to have gotten her fired)? I think the answer is fairly obvious. While it is one thing (not a good thing, of course) to argue in euphemism for the destruction of Israel by invoking the so-called one-state solution, it is quite another to advocate for the “return” of Israeli Jews to their German and Polish homelands, not merely because such advocacy is almost comically absurd and cruel (or, at the very least, stunningly ignorant of recent European history) but because this argument denies to Jews what Helen Thomas, and people like Helen Thomas, want to grant the Palestinians: Recognition that they comprise, collectively, a nation.

The Jews, of course, are an ancient nation, a nation whose history took place in a sliver of land called Israel. Helen Thomas’s argument, if you can call it an argument, centers on the pernicious belief that Jews are strangers in a place called “Palestine.” Palestine, of course, is the name that was given by the Romans to the Land of Israel precisely in order to sever the connection between the Jews and their homeland. Helen Thomas, and people like her, are thus soldiers in a (Roman-inspired) war against history. This particular war is not as offensive to most people as the war against the memory of the Shoah, but it is rooted in the same grotesque motivation: To deny to Jews the truth of their own history. (source)

One additional remark: none of this should be interpreted as implying that people’s free speech rights entail a right not to be fired for what they say. More posts in this series here.

Economic Human Rights (28): The Health Consequences of the Recession and of Unemployment

The Economist called it the “unsurprising research finding of the day“, but I think it’s a useful confirmation of an existing intuition: this paper finds that the recession can have a beneficial effect on the health of some people who lose their job because of it, namely those people spending their new leisure time in a healthy way. Other people, however, spend their leisure time cultivating some of their pre-existing unhealthy habits, or find themselves depressed and without employer-provided healthcare (especially in the U.S.). Because their healthcare has become more expensive now that they are unemployed, they decide to go without treatment or tests.

Results showed the body mass of the average laid-off food-lover increasing by the equivalent of more than 7 pounds for a 5-foot, 10-inch man weighing 180 pounds during unemployment. Similarly, frequent drinkers on average doubled their daily alcohol intake after losing their jobs and before finding another one. (source)

Elsewhere in the world, and especially sub-Saharan Africa, it seems that the health consequences of the global recession are more dramatic:

The financial crisis will kill between 28,000 and 50,000 babies in sub-Saharan Africa this year, according to this paper. The reasoning here is straightforward. For people on subsistence incomes, a fall in GDP can be fatal. The paper’s authors, Jed Friedman and Norbert Schady, estimate that a one percentage point fall in per GDP across sub-Saharan Africa is associated with a rise in infant (defined as under-ones) mortality of between 0.34 and 0.62 per 1000. If we multiply this increase by the number of births this year and by the 2.4 percentage point difference between GDP growth this year and last (a reasonableish estimate of the effect of the crisis), we get a figure of between 28,000 and 50,000. … Of course, you can quibble with the numbers. But the general story holds. For the poor, income is a matter of life or death. Which brings me to my question. If one-in-seventeen British babies were to die this year because of the financial crisis, it would be the biggest media story for years and there’d be rioting in the streets until the government did something. So, why the silence? Chris Dillow (source)

Limiting Free Speech (31): Speech That Incites, and Teaches the Methods of, Illegal Activity

This is a follow-up from two previous posts on the same subject (here and here).

In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court held that abstract advocacy of lawlessness and violence is protected speech under the First Amendment. Even in a society based on laws, people should be free to express disagreement with the law and call on others to break the law (inflammatory speech).

I think that’s generally acceptable and fair. If someone believes that smoking dope shouldn’t be a crime, and carefully describes to his or her readers how to cultivate and use the drug, then he or she should be permitted to do so. The crime is drug use, not the description of or incitement to use drugs. The same is true for a more extreme example, such as the infamous book called “The Hit Man Manual” (see the Rice v. Paladin Enterprises case). Also, we don’t want to ban chemistry books because someone may use them to build a bomb.

However, it is equally acceptable, also according to Brandenburg v. Ohio, that speech which incites imminent, illegal conduct may itself be made illegal:

The constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action. Brandenburg v. Ohio

If speech intends to produce illegal actions, and if, as a result of this speech, the illegal actions are imminent and likely, then there is a reason to limit freedom of speech. In the words of Justice Black (who was, by the way, something of a first amendment absolutist):

It rarely has been suggested that the constitutional freedom for speech and press extends its immunity to speech or writing used as an integral part of conduct in violation of a valid criminal statute. We reject the contention now.

When speech acts contribute substantively to criminal acts, the speech acts are considered to be “aiding and abetting”.  The fact that “aiding and abetting” of an illegal act may be carried out through speech is no bar to its illegality. (source)

The justifications for free speech that apply to speakers do not reach communications that are simply means to get a crime successfully committed. K. Greenawalt in “Speech, Crime, and the Uses of Language”

Aiding and abetting a crime can be criminal in itself, even if it takes the form of the spoken or written word. The First Amendment doesn’t provide immunity from prosecution because someone uses speech or the printed word in encouraging and counseling others in the commission of a crime.

Volokh has given the following example:

A Virginia woman has been arrested for blogging about the members of a local drug task force. The charge is harassment of a police officer. She apparently posted on the blog one officer’s home address, as well as photos of all members of the task force, and a photo of one officer getting into his unmarked car in front of his home….

Photographing, writing about, and criticizing police officers, even by name, should of course be legal. But it’s a tougher call when the officers in question work undercover. Naming them, posting their photos, posting their addresses, are all pretty clearly efforts to intimidate them, and it isn’t difficult to see how doing so not only makes it more difficult for them to do their jobs, but may well endanger their lives….

When may speech be restricted because it provides others with information that may help them commit crimes? Here, the information may help people kill police officers, or at least conceal their crimes from police officers (once the undercover officers’ covers are blown). (source)

However, this doesn’t mean that all inflammatory speech or every publication and distribution of instructions on how to act illegally, can be suppressed and made illegal. The “Brandenbrug test” has to be successful first, which means that there has to be more than mere intent. There has to be incitement of an imminent lawless act, as well as the likelihood that this incitement produces or helps to produce such an act.

Limiting Free Speech (2): Holocaust Denial

In the introductory post of this series, I summarized the dangers of limiting free speech while at the same time granting that such limits are necessary in some cases. One case is Holocaust denial, or Holocaust revisionism as it is referred to by its supporters.

What is Holocaust denial?

Holocaust deniers only rarely claim that the Holocaust didn’t take place or that no Jews were killed by the Nazis. Rather, they claim that either or all of these facts are lies:

  • The Nazi government of Germany had a policy of deliberately exterminating the Jews
  • Over five million Jews were systematically killed by the Nazis
  • The extermination was carried out with tools such as gas chambers.

Instead of outright negation, there is trivialization. Moreover, Holocaust denial claims that the holocaust is a deliberate Jewish conspiracy created to advance the present-day interest of Jews and Israel.

Most historians and scholars reject Holocaust denial as a pseudo-science that fails to respect the rules of historical evidence and that is grounded in hatred rather than the pursuit of knowledge. Holocaust denial is characterized by the distortion or falsification of historical documents and the selective use of sources.

Holocaust deniers are mainly far-right, neo-nazi types and antisemites, but there are also far-left deniers, islamic deniers etc.

How can we justify the limits on free speech inherent in laws prohibiting Holocaust denial?

Nothing that went before is in itself sufficient to justify laws limiting the right to free speech of Holocaust deniers. According to the rules set forth in the introductory post in this series, one has to show that some rights are violated by Holocaust denial, and that this violation is worse than the violation of the rights of Holocaust deniers which would result from Holocaust denial laws.

There are a few possible kinds of justification:

1. Antisemitism

There is antisemitism inherent in Holocaust denial, although it is not necessarily obvious or immediately apparent. It is often implicit rather explicit antisemitism: the Holocaust is an invention of Jews, a tool to make them look like victims instead of criminals, and thereby gaining some sort of immunity for their vicious acts. Or a tool to make financial claims on Germany.

However, the mere antisemitism of Holocaust denial is not a sufficient reason to prohibit it. Antisemitism as such should enjoy the protection of the freedom of speech. Only when antisemitism explicitly incites to violence against or discrimination of Jews can it be forbidden. And Holocaust denial is rarely this explicit.

The offensive nature of Holocaust denial does undoubtedly inflict harm on Jews, especially the survivors of the camps, but no harm in the sense of rights violations. One could claim that Holocaust denial perpetuates and encourages antisemitism and therefore increases the likelihood of antisemitic attacks on individual Jews. But it would be a tough job establishing the causal links.

One could also claim that Holocaust denial perpetuates negative stereotypes in society, and thereby contributes to the marginalization of Jews. Again, difficult to prove.

In general, Holocaust denial is such a marginal phenomenon that it’s difficult to claim that it makes a substantive contribution to violence and discrimination. But in some countries or subcultures, the balance can be different.

2. Offensive speech

Justifying the prohibition of Holocaust denial merely on its offensive nature, would open the floodgates to a massive number of possible limitations of free speech, especially in the field of blasphemy. This would lead to an excess of political correctness and ultimately to “thought police”.

3. Libel

A justification based on the harm to the reputation of Jews would make Holocaust denial similar to libel. However, libel is traditionally designed to protect an individual’s reputation, income, and honor against abusive and harmful accusations. I fail to see how Holocaust denial can be directly harmful to individual Jews. Group defamation is highly controversial and could lead to the same problems cited in the previous point.

4. Democratic self-defense

Sometimes limits on rights are necessary to protect a rights-supporting community against anti-democrats who use democracy against democracy. A democracy is a particularly vulnerable form of government. The freedom it delivers can easily be misused by those who want to take it away. Anti-democratic and illiberal forces are free to use rights, freedoms and democratic procedures for the promotion of tyranny and oppression. The purpose of many holocaust deniers is the resurrection of Nazism, and a condition for this resurrection is the denial of the Nazis’ greatest crime. There can be no hope for acceptability of far-right policies as long as the Holocaust stands in the way. German Nazism, of course, is notorious for the way in which it misused the imperfect Weimar democracy.

Seen in this light, the criminalization of Holocaust denial is a self-defensive act of democracies in their struggle against extremism. Holocaust deniers use the freedoms of democracy in order to overthrow it. One cannot reasonably force democracies to abstain from self-defense. No system can be required to cherish the seeds of its own destruction.

To the extent that Holocaust deniers aim to overthrow democracy, they are hardly in a position to complain about limitations of the freedoms they would like to destroy:

One has no title to object to the conduct of others that is in accordance with principles one would use in similar circumstances to justify one’s actions towards them. A person’s right to complain is limited to violations of principles he acknowledges himself. John Rawls

You should not ask something for yourself that you are planning to deny to others. This, according to me, is the strongest justification of Holocaust denial laws, even in those countries were the revival of Nazism of highly unlikely. It may be unlikely precisely because of measures such as Holocaust denial laws.

5. The defense of Israel

Some extreme Islamists use Holocaust denial in their campaign against Israel. They hope that when they negate the Holocaust, they can remove one of the moral foundations of the state of Israel (as a refuge for the survivors). This negation, they hope, can help their efforts to destroy Israel.

However, whereas this justification may be useful in some circumstances, it is difficult to use it for an outright, worldwide prohibition on Holocaust denial since Holocaust denial outside of the Middle East can hardly be linked to the possible destruction of Israel.

6. The special case of Germany

In Germany, there may be an additional justification available. Holocaust denial laws can there be seen as part of a package of reparative justice, a kind of “sorry” issued by the state, a public acknowledgment of responsibility.

7. The interest of historical truth

Whereas truth is very important, it seems wrong to use laws to enforce the truth. Truth should be based on proof and sound argument, and using the law to punish “lies” only encourages those who believe the lies. They, and others as well, will think that there must be something wrong with the “truth” if it needs the law for its protection.


There is a case to be made for Holocaust denial laws, but one should be very careful and limit the prohibitions to cases and circumstances that really require them. Not all forms of Holocaust denial is equally pernicious, and not all circumstances are equally dangerous. Moreover, one should take into account the counterproductive effects of stigmatizing a certain group: persecution by the law can encourage them, can increase the number of sympathizers, and can give them more publicity than they would otherwise receive. Ignoring Holocaust deniers rather than criminalizing them could often be the most successful strategy. And some justifications should be avoided because they can create a dangerous precedent.

Countries with laws against Holocaust denial

Holocaust denial is explicitly or implicitly illegal in 13 countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Israel, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Romania, and Switzerland (source: here or here).