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What are the limits of free speech?

The below is from the Guardian

An Australian teacher accused of denying the Holocaust was arrested in transit through Heathrow yesterday and held facing extradition to Germany.

Gerald Frederick Töben, 64, who was en route from the US to Dubai when he was seized, was sentenced to nine months in prison in 1999 by a German court under a law that prohibits “defaming the dead”.

He was held under a German arrest warrant, issued in 2004, which alleges that he had carried out “worldwide internet publication” of material that was antisemitic, and denied, approved or played down the mass murder of Jews perpetrated by the Nazis during the second world war. The warrant stated that he had committed the offences in “Australia, Germany and other countries”.

I’m really not sure how I feel about this. My default position is that free speech is a good thing and that we have nothing to fear from fringe ideas. In an open marketplace of ideas surely bad ideas will be criticised and disproven, but that doesn’t seem to be how the world really works. For example take a look at the below video –

– it seems that for many people they’re happy to believe things that fit their worldview without analysing it more deeply.

So my question is are there ideas that are too dangerous to be freely debated? Put differently can we trust people to take the time to investigate for themselves?

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3 Responses

  1. To forcefully suppress ideas deemed unsuitable is a rather big can of worms. I have to ask, who decides whats suitable? Who gets to tell you what to think? Its only a matter of time before the people telling whats ok read and think start teling you what they think is ok to think, before telling you what they think will make you think whats best to keep them doing the thinking. Its simply not conducive to the furthering of our learnig as a society and species.

  2. I’ll go with my first instinct and say that there should be no limits on free speech. The emergance of freethinging was only possible because of the parallel emergance of the concept of the free exchange of ideas. A theocratic society would restrict such ideas and atheists would go back underground. However, it seems to me that while there should be no restriction on the production and circulation of ideas there may have to be some limits on their delivery e.g. an academic might produce a work based on a racist idea and the public are free to read it or not but teaching institutions would make a value judgment as to whether it would be a set text that students would be obliged to read. In the media and political world, I tend to believe that the truth will out.

  3. No, we can’t trust people to take the time to investigate things for themselves. People will always believe stupid things, and do stupid things because of that. Should we censor their speech or arrest them for “dangerous ideas?” Absolutely not.

    We should do everything in our power to try to persuade them. Show them evidence, reason with them. But the second we use force to prevent their expression of their ideas is the second they stop listening to us completely.

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