But as prominent Danish journalist and editor Flemming Rose has said, this is based on false assumptions. People argue that if only the Weimar government had clamped down on the National Socialists’ verbal persecution of the Jews in the years prior to Hitler’s rise to power, then the Holocaust would never have happened.
Rose, who famously published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in 2005 when he was culture editor of Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten, said:
“Contrary to what most people think, Weimar Germany did have hate-speech laws, and they were applied quite frequently. The assertion that Nazi propaganda played a significant role in mobilising anti-Jewish sentiment is, of course, irrefutable. But to claim that the Holocaust could have been prevented if only anti-Semitic speech and Nazi propaganda had been banned has little basis in reality. Leading Nazis such as Joseph Goebbels, Theodor Fritsch and Julius Streicher were all prosecuted for anti-Semitic speech.
“Pre-Hitler Germany had laws very much like the anti-hate laws of today, and they were enforced with some vigour.”
Trevor Phillips, founding chair, Equality and Human Rights Commission, said at the Battle of Ideas in London 2017: “What we have learnt in the last 150 years is that, ultimately, freedom of expression is the last and only defence of the minority in any society. When they have taken away everything else from you… the last thing they can take away is your voice. That was true about Sojourner Truth, it was true about the slaves in the Caribbean, it was true about the Jews in Europe. People can take everything away from you, what they cannot do, ultimately, unless physically, physically they obliterate you is take away your ability to express your pain, anger, frustration. So the defence of free speech on the grounds that it is somehow an offence to minorities simply flies in the face of every piece of human experience.”
Increasingly, though, I hear the argument that by allowing free speech we benefit only the powerful. That it is a tool that enriches only the privileged. That it is the armour which empowers the far-right and precedes violence, and that, therefore, we must curtail speech to protect those who are persecuted.
This ignores what a powerful and essential tool freedom of expression has been in freedom movements over the centuries: its role in the US civil rights movement of the 1960s or the drive for women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights and religious tolerance.
If we want to counter the persistent and growing narrative that free speech only benefits the privileged, and the far-right, we must raise up those voices who argue the contrary.
Index works with hundreds of writers, artists and campaigners who have experienced persecution as the minority and whose freedom of expression has been repeatedly curtailed. Atheists in Bangladesh who face death for voicing their views in an increasingly hardline Muslim state; political opponents in Bahrain tortured and jailed for criticising the government; gays in Uganda hounded for expressing their sexuality.
These are the voices we need to raise when people celebrate the value of denying speech to those with whom they disagree.