Monday, 26 November 2007

Peter Tatchell: denying freedom of speech may have prevented rise of Hitler

Ed: The question which this begs is whether a government in 1920s Germany which prevented freedom of speech in the way Tatchell suggests would itself have eventually given way to a better regime than Hitler's or Stalin's. As always, when 'fascism' is invoked as the enemy, one should also re-read George Orwell's classic essay, What is Fascism?, where he comments, "It will be seen that, as used, the word ‘Fascism’ is almost entirely meaningless. In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print."

[...] Free speech is the ideal. But it is not absolute. There may be a small number circumstances where free speech can be legitimately limited to protect individuals and communities. We already accept the notion that free speech does not include the right to falsely libel a person as a paedophile, terrorist or a fraudster. Nor does the law allow people to incite violence or murder. Restricting free speech may be wrong and undesirable, but it is sometimes the lesser of two evils.

Let’s go back in history. It is possible that if there had been no free speech for Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany during the early 1920s – if their meetings and marches had been stopped – they may not have grown in strength and influence. Denying them an opportunity to propagandise, gain respectability and enter the political mainstream might have thwarted their rise to power. This may have prevented the Nazis from assuming the government of Germany. Without Hitler in power, the Holocaust and World War Two may not have happened. Tens of millions of lives may have been saved if the free speech of Nazis had been suppressed early on.

This is, of course, historical speculation. We don’t know for sure. But it is plausible that “no platform” for Nazis in the 1920s could have prevented the horrors the Nazis later perpetrated. On these grounds, I would argue that it would have been justified to deny the Nazi Party freedom of speech.

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