Punishing Perversity

April 26, 1991

It is a disgrace for a politician or a professor to deny that the Holocaust happened. It is an embarrassment to his party or university. It is an insult to the memory of Jewish victims of Hitler and the intelligence of Gentiles. But ought it be a crime?

Twice recently courts in France have found that it is. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of an anti-immigrant right-wing party, referred to the Nazi gas chambers as a "detail of history" and was fined about $20,000, which he is to pay to nine groups that had filed suit for defamation. Robert Faurisson, a history professor who has maintained for ten years that there were no gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps, and therefore no systematic extermination program, was ordered to pay about $40,000 to 11 groups, some of them representing Jewish death-camp survivors. The publisher whose magazine printed an interview with the heretic professor also was convicted and fined.

French courts evidently are uncomfortable with a new law that prohibits public denial of the Holocaust or other crimes against humanity as they were recorded in the Nuremberg trials. Mr. Le Pen's fine was initially set at a symbolic one franc, but was increased on appeal. The tribunal that convicted Professor Faurisson took the unusual step of criticizing the law as a "new limit on the freedom of expression and opinion."

So it is. Comparable restrictions are now showing up in the "sensitivity codes" that some American universities have adopted. It is one thing to prohibit name-calling and quite another to prescribe orthodoxies to which all opinion and discussion must conform. A Michigan student last year was charged with a code violation for opining in a sociology class that homosexuality might be medically treatable -- a view shared until recently by much of the medical profession.

In 1616, papal enforcers of orthodoxy silenced Galileo, who taught, against scripture and the common sense of the time, that the earth revolved around the sun. Not many heretics turn out to be Galileos, but much of tomorrow's truth will be built on today's heresies. Society needs a good supply of heretics to test its orthodoxies. A confident society encourages robust debate, knowing that folly will be exposed and discredited. Virtue is its own reward; let perversity be its own punishment.

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