Is rewriting history in academia a free speech right?
Published: 1998-01-06

The recent debate at Johns Hopkins University over whether the student newspaper should have published an advertisement denying the existence of Nazi death camps is more than just an academic flap. At stake are profound questions of how a free society learns the lessons of history and, unique to America, the effect of constitutionally protecting the dissemination of demonstrably false ideas. From the ashes of the Holocaust, we have come once again to learn the terrible truth, that the power of evil cannot be underestimated. Nor can the effect of the spoken and written word.

At Hopkins and elsewhere, the issue of granting historical revisionists equal access to curricula and classrooms is difficult enough, but it is complicated acutely when student editors become entangled in the black and nefarious thickets of Holocaust denial masquerading as "scholarship." The Johns Hopkins News-Letter is only the most recent university paper to succumb to the blandishments of a group calling itself the "Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust," which promulgates claims that a plan systematically to rid Germany or Europe of Jews never existed, that no gas chambers ever operated and that the number of Jewish victims always has been grossly distorted by Zionist propagandists.

During the past few years, similar such briefs have appeared at universities as notable as Brandeis, Duke, Miami, Michigan and Ohio State, where student editors have defended their decisions to publish on First Amendment grounds. In so doing, they broadly invoke the freedoms of speech and press, and are quick to note specifically their aversion to censorship.

But other student newspapers such as those at Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, and Texas have been able to recognize that Holocaust denial reflects less "scholarship" and "intellectual freedom" than sham and nonsense. Perhaps better than some of their politically correct professors, they understand that such historical revisionism is designed to take advantage of both the dwindling number of survivors and the inevitable ignorance of future generations.

The Nazis understood that the incredibility of what they had done would cast shadows of doubt upon eyewitness reports. Concentration camp inmates have testified they were frequently taunted by their captors that no one would believe what they reported except as wartime exaggeration. That is why the Nuremberg Tribunal was so intent on documenting all of the atrocities found by the Allied liberators in places such as Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Buchenwald.

"The things I saw beggar description," said Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower on first viewing the death camps in 1945. "I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give firsthand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda."

Alas, even Eisenhower understated the possibilities.

Although it has been but half a century since the liberation of Nazi death camps, a little more than a decade since the First International Conference on the Holocaust and Human Rights and a few short years since the U.S. Holocaust Museum (upon whose entrance are etched Eisenhower's words) first displayed its documentation of horror, the claim that Hitler's genocide was a Zionist fabrication has gained increasing currency.

This particular form of historical revisionism—disseminated not only in student newspapers but also by books, articles, speeches, and the Internet—abounds worldwide, feeding in full, foul flourish on the ignorance of the masses about what actually happened at the hands of the Nazis.

One would hope that Americans were better informed, but a recent survey found that close to 40 percent of high school students did not know anything about the Holocaust. Neither did 30 percent of the adults polled, many of whom thought it possible that the Holocaust never happened. Even supposedly well educated people have difficulty identifying important historical events such as "Kristallnacht," the Night of Broken Glass in November 1938 that marked the beginning of the end for millions of European Jews.

Holocaust denial likely will gain even more strength once no more victims are alive to offer eyewitness testimony. The need to remember is made all the more critical by the existence of well-known political figures who express sympathy for accused Nazi war criminals or doubt the extent of their atrocities. The most notable current examples in the United States are Patrick Buchanan and Louis Farrakhan.

As the generation of survivors dwindles, whose words will win? Most decisions as to what appears in the vast and burgeoning marketplace of ideas are vested in editors of all media, upon whom the Constitution confers almost unfettered discretion. And that's the way we like it. That's the American way.

But the greater the opportunity for excess in the exercise of the power of speech and press, the more difficult the consequences in the protection of civil liberties of individuals.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Ivory Tower. Fifty years ago, the bramble bush of political correctness might have been mere stubble in the wasteland of academic politics. But what should be the most receptive place for honest intellectual inquiry and discourse has become one where everything is open to debate. The underlying assumption is that all opinions are valid.

The phenomenon has gone well beyond the lecture halls and infects university libraries as well. Like many of their public library counterparts, they have difficulty distinguishing between between legitimate Holocaust literature and the distortions of Holocaust denial.

In such an intellectually stupefying environment, how can students be expected to understand the nuances?

The fact is that few of their professors fathom the Constitutional issues involved, or care to. Here, after all, is where two principles, the freedom of speech in the quest for truth and the suppression of racism in the quest for equality, are sometimes in conflict.

We are all well schooled in the primary arguments justifying the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech—that an open and unfettered exchange of ideas nourishes a healthy democracy; that abhorrent thoughts will fester if suppressed, but die of their own weight if subjected to scrutiny; and that even offensive ideas must be protected to preserve legitimate scientific and scholarly inquiry, to document bigotry in all its forms and to avoid the dangers of censorship.

But constitutionally sound reasons also exist for regulating hate speech, including the high costs of unfettered bigotry on its victims, not only the dwindling number of survivors but perhaps all of us. Remedies for defaming an ethnic class have not been established clearly in American law. Nor has the intentional infliction of emotional distress been adequately tested against traditional free speech guarantees. Perhaps explored least of all are the consequences of allowing free reign to those who would engage in "ethnic cleansing."

Every other Western democracy has laws that punish various forms of hate speech. A number of them, most notably Canada, England, France, Germany, and Sweden, specifically prohibit (and punish) Holocaust denial. The debate elsewhere is not whether to control hate speech but how.

When perpetrated in an academic environment, Holocaust denial should be recognized not as an attempt at free inquiry but as an exercise in distortion. Universities should be regarded as places with the moral responsibility of training students to think critically, not of providing platforms for people whose sole purpose is to stir up hatred.

Allowing the discarding of the documented facts of history hardly can be understood as the honest scholar's quest for truth.


Kenneth Lasson is a law professor at the University of Baltimore.

(Copyright 1998)

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Title: IS REWRITING HISTORY IN ACADEMIA A FREE SPEECH RIGHT?
Summary: The recent debate at Johns Hopkins University over whether the student newspaper should have published an advertisement denying the existence of Nazi death camps is more than just an academic flap. At stake are profound questions of how a free society learns the lessons of history and, unique to America, the effect of constitutionally protecting the dissemination of demonstrably false ideas. From the ashes of the Holocaust, we have come once again to learn the terrible truth, that the power of evil cannot be underestimated. Nor can the effect of the spoken and written word.
Source: The Record, Northern New Jersey
Date: 19980106
Regular Price: $1.00
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Document Size: Short (up to 2 pages)
Document ID: DG19980115110057643
Subject(s): HISTORY
Citation Information: All Editions.=.4 Star. 2 Star B. 2 Star P. 1 Star; Late. 1 Star Early; OPINION Section
Author(s): By KENNETH LASSON
Document Type: Article

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Author(s): Kenneth Lasson
Title: Is rewriting history in academia a free speech right?
Sources: The Record, June 1998
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Published: 1998-01-06
First posted on CODOH: Jan. 4, 1998, 6 p.m.
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