We have been following the rapid diminishing of free speech in the West in recent years. It is particularly disconcerting to see this trend in our close allies of England and France (For a prior column, click here). Now, the French Senate has added a new speech crime — denying the fact of the Armenian genocide by Turkey. While I commend the motivation, the legislation is blind to the implications to free speech by criminalizing certain subjects for debate. It seeks to force critics to be silent under threat of criminal prosecution — an approach that produces only the appearance of agreement while denying citizens the basic right to be heard on such controversies.
Germany took the same approach to denying the Holocaust as the display of Nazi symbols. I have always disagreed with that approach. It has not stopped the existence or extremism of Nazi groups. Instead, it gives them a claim to be victims of government coercion. The best way to be rid of extremist and racist ideas is with more not less speech.
While the sponsors insist it is meant only “to honor the memory of genocide victims and struggle against hate speech,” it does so dishonoring a basic civil liberty. Other sponsors are a bit more honest. Critics have charged the that drafter Valerie Boyer, the senator from Sarkozy’s UMP party, is just playing for votes among the 500,000 Armenians who live in France. Boyer responded simply “That’s democracy.” Perhaps but it is not liberty. Indeed, a pure democratic model was rejected by James Madison in writings like Federalist No. 10 in this country due to the need to temper passions through a representative democracy. Madison noted “A pure democracy can admit no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will be felt by a majority, and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party.”
Various respected academics have supported the claim of genocide by Turkey despite the denials of that country. However, this debate is not won by forcing those who disagree into forced silence. It is anti-intellectual. It is anti-free speech. It is wrong.
We previously heard of Boyer in her campaign against airbrushing of photos as a way to safeguarding history. Yet, it appears that shutting down speech entirely about history is fine.