A Museum's Facts Confound a Trend Toward Holocaust Denial

April 18, 1993|By DEBORAH E. LIPSTADT

ATLANTA. — Atlanta -- The United States Holocaust Memorial Museu should help combat a disturbing development. In recent years a conglomeration of neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, conspiracy theorists and white supremacists have engaged in a campaign to deny the Holocaust. While most people dismiss them as akin to flat-earth theorists or Elvis sighters they have made inroads in the most unlikely of places.

In the early 1990s the deniers focused their activities on the American campus. Their strategy was profoundly simple. They attempted to place in college newspapers a full-page ad asserting that the Holocaust was a hoax. The ad was published by papers at some of American's more prestigious institutions of higher learning. Analysis of campus response reveals a susceptibility to historical revisionism and a failure to understand the implications of Holocaust denial, even among those who condemned it.

Close to 20 universities accepted the ad. Most based their decision on the First Amendment, contending that their action was in the best tradition of a free press and free speech.

An editorial in the University of Michigan Daily condemned Holocaust denial as ''absurd'' and ''founded on historical fiction and anti-Jewish bigotry'' but supported the ad's publication. Even the university's president, who declared the ad the work of a ''warped crank,'' asserted that the Daily had a long history of editorial freedom that had to be protected even when ''we disagree with particular opinions, decisions or actions.''

Cornell's editors decided to print the ad because the ''First Amendment right to free expression must be extended to those with unpopular or offensive ideas.'' The Duke Chronicle accepted the ad because it believed it was not the paper's responsibility to protect ''readers from disturbing ideas'' but to ''disseminate them.'' The presidents of Cornell and Duke defended their papers' decisions as in the best tradition of free speech.

Ohio State University ran the ad as an op-ed piece, explaining it as the paper's ''obligation.'' An editorial condemned deniers as ''racists, pure and simple,'' but said the paper could not run only ''things that were harmless to everyone.''

There was no doubt about the message these editors and presidents were conveying: as absurd, illogical and bigoted as the ad may be, the guarantees of the First Amendment were paramount. But their branding rejection of the ad ''censorship'' ignored the fact that, the First Amendment does not guarantee access to a publication. It is designed to serve as a shield to protect individuals and institutions from government interference in their affairs. It is not a sword by which every person who makes an outlandish statement or notorious claim can invoke their constitutional right to be published.

There is no better example of the fragility of reason than the conclusion by the various editorial boards that it was their solemn obligation to run an op-ed column which according to their own evaluation was totally lacking in relevance or substance and whose only purpose was to promulgate animus.

In fact the motives of the deniers are irrelevant. Some may truly believe the Holocaust a hoax. No matter how sincerely someone believes it, two plus two will never equal five. Their firm belief does not make it an idea worthy of consideration.

The argument that not to publish constituted censorship was disingenuous. All these editorial boards have policies preventing them from running racist, sexist, prejudicial or religiously offensive ads. Some of these papers even refuse cigarette ads. How could they square their principled stand for absolute freedom of speech with such policies? In fact the Duke Chronicle, whose editor had wondered how newspapers founded on the principle of free speech and free press could ''deny those rights to anyone,'' had earlier rejected an insert for Playboy and an ad attacking a fraternity.

Some of the boards tried to reconcile these seemingly contradictory positions by adopting a stance which drew them even further into the deniers' trap. They argued that Holocaust denial was not anti-Semitic and, therefore, not offensive.

The editors' claim that the rejection of the ad constituted censorship revealed their failure to think carefully about what it is they do regularly: pick and choose between subjects they cover and those they do not, columns they run and those they reject, ads that meet their standards and those that do not.

An even more disconcerting rationale was offered by many papers. However ugly or repellent the ad's ''ideas,'' these papers argued, they had a certain intellectual legitimacy. Consequently, it was the papers' responsibility to present these views to readers for their consideration.

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