Free speech matters, but…

Where do you stand on the issue of free speech?

By Phillip Knightley (One Man’s View)

Published: Sat 21 Aug 2010, 10:40 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:10 AM

Here is the test. Imagine the worst thing your enemy could write about you. Then ask yourself: Can I swear I will defend his or her right to say it? You will be, of course, entitled to a reply, to defend yourself with all the vigour you can muster. But if you really believe in free speech then you cannot try to gag or punish that enemy.

The landmark legal case expounding this view on freedom of expression is Near v Minnesota in the United States. Jay Near had started a scandal sheet—a shrill, bigoted, anti-black, anti-Semitic, anti-labour, anti-government newspaper. Nothing could be said in its favour. The government of Minnesota resorted to a 1925 statute that enabled it to ban “malicious, scandalous and defamatory” publications. The courts granted the government a permanent suppression of the newspaper.

The American Civil Liberties Union appealed on Near’s behalf to the United States Supreme Court, arguing that freedom of speech was absolute. The outlook was not good. The six judges had taken a consistently narrow of individual rights. But on 8 March 1930 news came of the deaths of both conservative Associate Justice Edward Sanford and Chief Justice Taft. Everything would now depend on their successors, the new Chief Justice Charles Hughes and the new Associate Justice, Owen Roberts.

On 1 June 1931, Hughes stunned the conservatives with a passionate judgment in defence of free speech and a free press. When Roberts agreed with him, the decision to invalidate the Minnesota government’s gag on Near’s newspaper was a 5-4 majority on the issue of free speech.

The vital phrase in Hughes’s judgment should be engraved on a plaque in every government office and carried on a card in every journalist’s pocket: “The rights of the best of men are secured only as the rights of vilest and most abhorrent are protected.”

What’s the relevance of this today? Isn’t the right to free speech accepted everywhere in the Western world? Apparently not. In France, a chemical engineer, Vincent Reynouard, a 41 year-old father of eight, is in prison for writing that he did not believe that the Nazis used gas chambers in wartime concentration camps.

In 2005, Reynouard was tried in the criminal court in Alsace for circulating a 16-page brochure entitled “Holocaust? Here’s what’s kept hidden from you” in which he expressed a view contrary to accepted academic history. He was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment a fined €10,000. In 2008 a court of appeal upheld the sentence and increased the fine to €60,000.

Since he resides in Belgium, France launched a European arrest warrant and on 9 July this year he was imprisoned by Belgium police pending his extradition to France. He commented: “When people can think of no other way but imprisonment to get rid of a verbal opponent, it’s because they have no arguments.”

So far organisations that are usually to the forefront in defending free speech have remained silent, probably because they are concerned about being accused of anti-Semitism, or being Holocaust deniers. But the French law under which Reynouard was charged, the Gayssot Act, has been heavily criticized by a long list of prominent French and international academics, intellectuals, politicians and lawyers. The Belgian physicist Jean Bricmont describes the Gayssot Act as “a regression of several centuries”.

The latest development is that the historian Paul-Eric Blanrue has decided, acting as an historian and a citizen, to ask for the immediate release of Reynouard and the immediate repeal of the Gayssot Act. In a press release announcing his campaign, Blanrue said, “I am appalled at the fact that in our country we have a man thrown into prison for his opinions, however unusual, shocking and controversial they may be.

“Such treatment is not worthy of France or her intellectual tradition. It is not for the law to say how historical truth is set down; in a free country that is the task of historians.” Calling for others to join his protest he added, “It is not a question of supporting Vincent Renouard’s religious, political or historical ideas but of defending his right to express them. To challenge, a open, democratic, fair and honest debate will suffice.” He has a powerful argument.

Phillip Knightley is a veteran London-based journalist and commentator. For feedback, write to

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