Europe Doesn't Get Free Speech

Since the controversy over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad erupted, Europe's leaders have shown remarkable--and uncharacteristic--courage under fire. Refusing to apologize for the alleged slight to religious Muslims, a chorus of Continental voices has instead risen to the cartoons' defense, citing freedom of expression as the very essence of liberty, democracy and the European Way.

Unfortunately, free speech is about the weakest card in Europe's hand these days. An Austrian court's conviction and sentencing of the British historian David Irving to three years imprisonment for Holocaust denial is merely the most recent footnote to European hypocrisy on freedom of expression over the past decade.

The European Convention on Human Rights, which legally binds all EU states and supersedes domestic law, explicitly guarantees "the right to freedom of expression" including "the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority."

This provision is in keeping not only with the U.S. Bill of Rights, but with the central instruments of international human rights law to which Europe and America claim adherence. Yet Europe's interpretation of free expression has diverged markedly from America's broad deference to First Amendment freedoms of speech, assembly and religion.

American courts have upheld the publication of false, even racist materials, the right of neo-Nazis to rally in Jewish neighborhoods, and the objections of some citizens to the Pledge of Allegiance and to school dress codes on religious grounds.

European governments, on the other hand, have consistently trampled analogous rights, outlawing publication of hate speech, trade in Nazi paraphernalia, and the wearing of distinctive religious clothing, to name but a few recent examples.

According to the Austrian court that convicted him on Monday, David Irving's offense was to have "denied, grossly played down, approved, or tried to excuse" the Holocaust in print or other media, in violation of a 1992 statute. Although he has not been tried at home in Britain, Irving was convicted and fined in Germany in 1995 for "inciting race hatred."

At best, Irving is a monumentally terrible historian, who, only after publishing dozens of books on World War II, read the notes of the Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann and came around to admitting that the Nazi genocide might actually have occurred. At worst, he is an artless but unrepentant bigot, on the model of America's David Duke or Austria's own Jörg Haider, but without any independent political power.

Why, then, is Irving's Holocaust denial, like other minority and extremist views in European society, of such great concern to lawmakers? If European governments want to guard against the repetition of genocide, they should actively educate their citizens in tolerance and respect for different cultures and beliefs, not gag those who express conflicting ideas.

Europe's suppression of free speech is guaranteed to spawn and incubate precisely the kind of bigotry and sectarian violence it is intended to prevent. Hounded for the unthinkable crime of publishing false history, David Irving appears almost heroic as he stands up to censorship, fines and imprisonment, making him a kind of martyr for neo-fascist groups.

Likewise, suppression of young Muslims' rights to dress or worship as their religion requires lends government sanction to already widespread anti- Muslim attitudes. This official xenophobia in turn breeds simmering resentment that has already exploded into mass violence and been manipulated by radical Islamists to recruit willing terrorist agents from within European society.

While European leaders should be praised for their belated conversion to the cause of free speech, outraged Muslims around the world are right to allege a double standard. Until Europe consistently respects its own guarantees of free expression, and actively promotes tolerance instead of clumsily stifling dissent, its brave rhetoric will ring disappointingly false.