Freedom of expression – what is it good for? For your neighbor to say that despite the clouds, it is a nice day? For your workmate to say she prefers mayonnaise to ketchup on her french fries? For some dude on the street to shout that he loves a sports team you absolutely despise? This is everyday stuff.
The real test of freedom of speech is how an allegedly free society treats its really extreme, repulsive, provocative and offensive crackpots. Can we truly grant freedom to the thought we hate? Latvia may be failing that test again in the case of Aleksandrs Giļmans, a member of For Human Rights in a Unified Latvia (PCTVL), a pro-Russian party that was voted out of the Latvian parliament or Saeima.
An article Giļmans said he wrote some six years ago was republished. In it, (according to press reports) he downplayed the deportation of some 15 000 Latvian citizens, saying it was not the tragedy that it is made out to be, and adding that Latvians themselves were involved in the deportation of their countrymen. There is probably some truth to the latter, or it is at least worth researching how the Soviet occupation authorities came over lists of whom to arrest and deport and where to to find them.
What has happened now is that the Latvian Security Police, no friends of free expression in the past, have started a criminal investigation of Giļmans for the “crime” of glorifying and justifying genocide,crimes against humanity, crimes against peace and denying that such crimes had occurred. It is the equivalent of a Holocaust denial case in countries where that is forbidden.
While extreme sensitivity to Holocaust issues may be understandable in Germany and Israel, to forbid the peaceful advocacy of a false and offensive viewpoint is, nonetheless, a serious restriction on speech. I am convinced that granting the state the power to punish any speech is more dangerous than the substance of what a private person without police, prosecutors and jails behind them, may say or publish. Giļmans assertions were answered by Latvian historians, who called them nonsense. In a free, democratic society, as a means of dealing with offensive opinion, that is enough. Call off the Security Police.