Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit.
In May 1980, students in the South Korean city of Gwangju rebelled against the unpopular military regime. Many hundreds were brutally murdered by paratroopers sent in to quell the uprising. General Chun Doo-hwan, the leader of the military government, claimed that the students were North Korean revolutionary stooges.
Over the following two decades, South Korea became a democracy and Chun was put in prison, though some conservatives still believe that Chun was right to see the uprising as a North Korean plot. Now, South Korea’s current liberal president, Moon Jae-in, is pushing for laws to ban such views as “historical distortions.” Denying that the Gwangju uprising was anything but a quest for freedom can now land a person in jail for five years.
Proponents of such legislation in South Korea point to laws in several European countries that prohibit denial of the Jewish Holocaust. Opponents, meanwhile, regard such laws as an attack on free speech, arguing that governments should not be allowed to decide what is right or wrong in historical debates.
There are historical facts, of course: Auschwitz existed, atom bombs were dropped, and students were killed in Gwangju. But much is also open to interpretation. Bad arguments and falsehoods must be contested with better arguments and more accuracy.
That is the ideal case for free speech, anyway. In reality, legal and social constraints exist everywhere, often for good reason. Inciting hatred and discrimination on the grounds of race, creed, or sexuality is illegal in the European Union. Though the constitution of the United States is less restrictive, it still bans speech that directs or incites “imminent lawless action.”
Is this enough? Is the ideal of free speech not a little naïve in an age when a U.S. president can spread noxious lies to millions of voters via the internet? Should dangerous conspiracy theories that aggravate a global pandemic or undermine democratic institutions be banned from social media?
Since I believe in free speech, I don’t like laws against Holocaust denial and other abhorrent opinions. But this position must be tested against the clear risks of letting some of the most poisonous views circulate.
A common practical argument against outlawing crackpot theories once held that they were marginal, and thus relatively harmless. Before the age of the internet and social media, the idea that Hillary Clinton and George Soros were running a global network of cannibalistic pedophiles would have been limited to a lunatic fringe. But now, millions of people around the world believe such nonsense.
Several European countries, as well as the EU, are working on laws to regulate internet platforms. But asking governments or social-media platforms to censor irrational and harmful beliefs is unlikely to get rid of them. True believers will only be strengthened in their conviction that they are under siege from a malevolent establishment.
Even if bad ideas could be curtailed by censorship, would it be the right thing to do? Here, I think the famous Skokie case is still relevant. In 1977, the National Socialist Party of America wanted to demonstrate in a Chicago suburb. Prompted by complaints from the local population, the municipal officials tried to stop it. The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, where the right to free speech – which included waving swastika flags – was upheld. No matter how unpleasant, swastika flags were deemed permissible, because they did not qualify as “fighting words” – a narrow category of speech that is denied the standard constitutional protections.
The argument put forward by the Nazis’ lawyers was simple: If you allow the state to ban opinions you oppose, you make it easier for the state to ban views you agree with. This argument still holds, even in our digital age.
But even in the U.S., which is more lenient than most countries, the principle cannot be absolute. Inciting imminent violence is not permitted. Donald Trump’s speech on Jan. 6, urging the mob to storm the U.S. Capitol, certainly came close to overstepping this boundary. What the internet media has done is raise the stakes; “fighting words” are spread around much faster and more widely than ever before. This will require a great deal of vigilance, to protect our freedom to express ourselves, while observing the social and legal bounds that stop words from turning into actual fighting.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021. www.project-syndicate.org
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