Freedom of speech and the denial of historical facts

Recently Cambodia has passed a law which outlaws the denial of crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge. People can receive up to two years of imprisonment. Many Western countries has passed similar laws for denial of the holocaust. Classical liberals are against any of such laws, because they are a violation of the right to free speech.

Some people will argue that crimes against humanity are facts not opinions and therefore they are not covered by the freedom of speech. Classical liberals reject this argument. After all who is to determine what constitutes a fact and what an opinion? Often there is no clear-cut distinction between facts and opinion. For instance, when scientists are discussing different hypotheses. Are these opinions? When a hypothesis has been confirmed by evidence, it’s considered a fact. Science is about establishing facts regarding the world we live in. However, science is also about questioning the things we consider to be facts.

A more important question, is why we should give facts any legal protection? As far as I am aware of, there no laws in any country outlawing the denial of gravity. Any such bill would be dismissed as ridiculous. Generally, it is accepted that facts should speak for themselves.

According to classical liberalism the litmus test for determining whether an action should be prohibited (or regulated) is the harm principle. Only if an action results, or might result, in (physical) harm to third parties then the government is entitled to prohibit said action. Therefore the question becomes: Does the denial of historical facts constitute harm? Although people might be offended by such denial, for understandable reasons, no one is actually harmed by such denial.

John Stuart Mill, the philosopher who has formulated the harm principle in his On Liberty, has also given the most profound defense of practically unlimited freedom of speech. He presents several reasons for allowing broad freedom of speech: An opinion which some seek to suppress, might be true; further by being forced to refute obviously false opinions we are able to know why certain facts are indeed true.

But Mill made a few exceptions to the freedom of speech. In his famous example of a rioting crowd, he argued we should not give a speech to such crowd which might incite them to commit violence, even if such speech could be published in a news paper. Thus, incitement to violence is not covered by freedom of speech.

Further, Mill has also argued that though the government is not permitted to prohibit the denial of historical facts, people might censure the fellow citizens for their opinions. We are not obliged to provide people the means to promote their views, nor are we obliged to associate with such persons.

Our conclusion is that governments should not be in the business of outlawing denialism.

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4 thoughts on “Freedom of speech and the denial of historical facts”

  1. Only yesterday someone commented on how the moon landings were faked, denying all the facts just because of watching a television program on conspiracy theories. After said person reminded us all that (s)he is entitled to their own opinion I replied that having an opinion is fine, but once something is a fact how could you have another opinion?

    It’s like saying that your opinion on the Earth being flat is justified. It isn’t justified. The Earth is round. Fact. Why have a different opinion?

    The sad thing here of course, is that a difference in opinion makes by inference, another group of people wrong, and liars.

    I pointed out that by saying Apollo 11 never went to the moon has made liars out of the late, great Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and all those that had something to do with the mission.

    A fact is a fact, historical or recent. To deny it is to deny someone of memories, to dilute the importance of its historical impact, and to bring immense pain and suffering on the part of victims caught in such a terrible event as the Haulocaust.

    I’m for free speech and debate, but facts are facts. They don’t need debating.

    1. I agree with you that facts are what they are, and the denial of horrific crimes such as the holocaust is wrong to do. However, I do not believe that the government should punish such people, people will believe whatever they want and laws cannot change that. The best thing to do with such people is to ignore them as most as possible, debating them is meaningless because they won’t listen to our arguments.

  2. I’ve been reading a lot on the internal mechanisms that keep conspiracy theories “in business”. In my part of the U.S. it is common to hear that the sitting president is a Manchurian (or Kenyan, at least) Candidate, using mind control to pave the way for stealing all our guns for the UN and impose a combination of socialism and sharia because he hates light-skinned people. It’s hard to separate what people say they believe and what they say just to be nasty. I blame it on low per-student education funding and talk radio.
    I’m not a fan of banning hate speech, but there are times when I wish that some virulent “hate speakers” could be subjected to mandatory psychological testing and possible treatment as a public safety measure. We do have that to a limited degree already, particularly in cases of actionable threats or incitement. Still, around here, a lot of these whackos give me the creeps without going over that line.
    Yes, it comes down to the principle of “harm”. It’s a good thing to prohibit false claims for products such as medicines and the like. The affirmative statement of falsehood for profit is rightly outlawed, but that old marketplace of ideas (and whacko-isms) is best left open. At least if the nut-bags are open and vocal you can see them coming. Better blatant than latent.

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