Genocide denial: should we defend the right to speak evil?

Saturday 20 October, 5.15pm until 6.30pm, Frobisher 4-6

In January 2012, the French Senate voted for a bill with cross-party support to make it a criminal offence to deny the mass murder of Armenians in 1915 was genocide. Anyone who ‘outrageously’ questions the official version of events would face a one-year prison sentence. The French Constitutional Court quashed the bill, saying it represented an ‘unconstitutional attack on freedom of expression’. Nonetheless, the European Framework decision on Racism and Xenophobia says genocide denial or gross trivialisation should be a crime in all EU member states. As well as France, a number of member states have rejected this, including the UK, the Netherlands, Italy, Denmark, Sweden and Spain. Their rejection reflects an ongoing dispute about whether historical truths should be treated as legal truths. It also reflects a degree of commitment to freedom of expression, which must include the right to shock, offend and outrage

Concern over the problem of genocide denial can seem out of proportion to its reality. When deniers do pop up, they are easily exposed and seem to have little to no influence on society. David Irving is more of a laughing stock than a new leader of anti-Semitism in Europe. But some warn against what they see as a naively overconfident assessment of our liberal democracies. They insist we need to back up our commitment to liberal values with legal sanctions for those who seek to undermine them.

Is genocide denial a limit beyond which free speech must not go? What does it really mean to say that certain facts are so true that they cannot be denied? After all, flat-Earthers don’t face jail sentences. Or is it not so much a matter of the truth of the facts themselves but of a greater moral truth represented by genocide, by the Holocaust? It has been argued that it is only through unqualified free speech that we have any hope of reaching the truth. Does this not apply to genocide denial; has humanity already established the truth about that? Are we so sure of that as to allow lawyers to prosecute in the name of that truth?

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Dr Jean-Marc Dreyfus
reader in history and Holocaust studies, University of Manchester

Timothy Garton Ash
professor of European studies, University of Oxford; commentator; director, Free Speech Debate

Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination

Brian Winston
Lincoln Professor, University of Lincoln; author, A Right to Offend: free expression in the twenty-first century

Professor Dennis Hayes
professor of education, University of Derby

Produced by
Professor Dennis Hayes professor of education, University of Derby
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