The European Commission: We Decide What’s Freedom of Speech!

Posted by John Rosenthal

The European Commission has sharply rebuked Turkey for limiting freedom of speech on account of a Turkish court’s prosecution of a writer who critically discussed the 1915 killings of Armenians in Eastern Anatolia during WWI and the prohibition of a conference that was to be dedicated to the same topic. The Turkish government refuses to recognize the 1915 events as constituting genocide. For more details on the controversy, see this report from the EUobserver.

Now, it is all well and good for the EU Commission to criticize Turkey for criminalizing or attempting to suppress speech qualifying the 1915 events as genocide. But the problem is that in France, it is illegal to deny this qualification of the events. In 1995, a French court found Bernard Lewis – yes, that Bernard Lewis, no less than the most eminent English-speaking historian of Islam – guilty of having done so in an interview with Le Monde. The court ruled, in effect, that Bernard Lewis was welcome to his opinion, but was at fault for not having specified that his opinion is wrong. An English translation of the decision can be consulted here. The last time I made the experiment, access to virtually all web pages containing interviews on the subject of the alleged Armenian genocide with Bernard Lewis – who needless to say has persisted in his judgment of the events and does not believe he is wrong – was blocked in France.  (For one such interview with Lewis, translated from the Israeli paper Haaretz, see here.)

If criminalizing and/or suppressing speech favoring the qualification of the 1915 events as genocide constitutes a limitation of freedom of speech – and, needless to say, it does – how can criminalizing and/or suppressing speech challenging this qualification not also constitute a limitation of freedom of speech?
The attitude of the Commission to matters of consistency seems to be similar to the attitude of a certain Joseph Goebbels. According to a well-known anecdote, the director Fritz Lang met with the Nazi propaganda chief shortly before Lang’s departure from Germany in 1933. Goebbels pleaded with Lang to stay and become the head of the Reich film industry. When Lang, who was of Jewish ancestry on his mother’s side, objected that his being a Jew might pose an obstacle in this connection, Goebbels is famously supposed to have replied: “I decide who’s a Jew!” 


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