It’s not a crime to be an idiot

I have to say, I’m not really comfortable with this at all:

Last Wednesday the Federal Court sentenced [holocaust denier Fredrick Toben] to three months jail for contempt of court.

Justice Bruce Lander imposed the prison sentence because Toben had repeatedly ignored a 2002 court ruling, which required him to stop publishing material which breaches Australia’s anti-vilification laws.

Now at least for the next two weeks Toben remains free. Justice Lander has given him 14 days to appeal against the sentence.

Toben is almost certainly a complete git. He’s pushing a line of historical argument that is, frankly, implausible – and which is contradicted by so much evidence that it will never be taken seriously by anyone other than cranks. He’s insulting the personal and family suffering of a great many people still alive today.

But so what?

He’s not the equivalent of the man in the metaphorical theatre who shouts “fire”! He’s not the man who stands up and tries to incite an angry mob to smash synagogue windows, or beat up muslim immigrants, or purge unbelievers. Not on the evidence before that court, anyway.

One doesn’t have to be “free speech without limits” extremist to be uncomfortable with people being told by courts what they can and can’t say about historical events, and punished with jail time for contempt if they persevere. Is the historical record surrounding the holocaust really so flimsy as to be seriously threatened by someone shouting “NAME JUST TEN!!!11!”?

And do these laws really keep anyone safer, or do they instead build resentment and hostility that will only make the violence they are supposed to deter more likely?

UPDATE: How about, instead of “offence”, we make the determining factor if a reasonable person in the relevant group could reasonably have felt that their personal safety was threatened by the conduct in question? Isn’t that enough? I don’t think I have a problem with legislation preventing a nutter riling up a mob and setting them on the homes of any members of minority X in the vicinity, but punishing any conduct less than that is absurd.

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29 responses to “It’s not a crime to be an idiot

  1. I think Alexander the Great was a no-talent glory hound who rode his father’s army to undeserved fame.

    Lock me up.

  2. And I think Islam is a misogynist, homophobic, intolerant (even potentially violently totalitarian), incoherent and irrational set of ideas.

    Now convict me of blasphemy and lock me up too.

  3. And I think Roman Catholicism as practised by George Pell is a misogynist, homophobic, intolerant (even potentially violently totalitarian), incoherent and irrational set of ideas.

    This is fun, isn’t it?

  4. You’re right about Catholicism, Zoot. But the Catholics aren’t trying to have blasphemy made illegal by the UN: Islamic theocracies are. And the Catholics don’t threaten to kill people (any more) who publish cartoons or write books about their ideas. The days of violent totalitarian Catholicism are behind us, thanks to the intellectual heroism of the Enlightenment thinkers. Btw, I disagree that the problem is George Pell, the problem is actually Catholicism and the Catholic institutions as a whole, including George Pell.

  5. Well, I guess we’ll just have to agree to differ Rose.
    I know quite a few Catholics who are definitely not misogynistic, homophobic or intolerant (even though they subscribe to an irrational set of ideas). This is why I mentioned Pell, to identify a particular strand of Catholicism.

  6. The difference is Christian Ministers in Australia have already been charged for offending Islam.

    As far as I know nobody has been done for offending catholics.

  7. Zoot, where did I say “CATHOLICS are misogyinist, etc.”? I said “CATHOLICISM is misogynist, etc.” Big, big difference.

    And you’re right, Yobbo, there is a lot of censorship, both internal and external, in the West about comments relating to Islam. Books are being withdrawn from publishing, articles are not getting printed and cartoonists and intellectuals are getting death threats. It’s a shame that in the current political climate one can’t criticise Islam without being mistaken as a right-wing hater like Andrew Bolt et al. It’s one thing to hate Muslims, it’s an entirely different thing again to oppose Islam.

  8. My bad Rose, I misunderstood. Please accept my apology.
    Now just to clarify – when you say Islam is misogynist, homophobic and intolerant, I am not to interpret it as you saying the followers of Islam are misogynist, homophobic and intolerant. Right?

  9. I’ll be selecting people to jail at the end of this thread.

  10. Could you go just one post without having a go against Andrew? It would help your credentials!

  11. Allright, unfair…..

  12. Zoot, is it really that hard to understand? Not all followers of Islam are the epithets above that I can’t be bothered repeating. Therefore to claim that Muslims are those epithets is unjust and incorrect. But Islam itself, the set of ideas as written in the Koran, Hadith and the Sunnah, and as practiced by Islamic theocracies, are those epithets. Turkey is the only Muslim-majority country which has a separation of church and state, yet honour killing and the repression of women, homosexuals and dissent is still rife. I think most people who are Islamic are Islamic because they were born into an Islamic family or country, and could be seen as victims of Islam. Many people who are born into Islamic society who would like to dissent are unable to on pain of death or other forms of punishment including ostracism.

    Religion causes a lot of serious problems and abuse of human rights, and although I am not advocating a ban of religion I think it should be kept as far away from the reins of power as possible, and should definitely not be kowtowed to in public discourse or mistaken for being all fluffy and warm. The Catholic Church had an iron grip on Europe for centuries, and it was much the same: think of the burning of witches, the murder of heretics, the misogyny and the homophobia.

  13. History is what we say it is, capisce?

  14. The judge that sentenced Toben is far more contemptible than Toben, and a far greater menace to society.

    Any decent person would resign rather than give effect to these rotten laws.

    This statement is far more offensive than anything Toben said or did:

    “The courts have held, but his conduct shows he does not accept that the freedom of speech citizens of this country enjoy does not include the freedom to publish material calculated to offend, insult or humiliate or intimidate people because of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin,”

    It is calculated to offend, insult or humiliate or intimidate Australians. It is not Toben that should be jailed!

  15. Pingback: Femmostroppo Reader - May 27, 2009 — Hoyden About Town

  16. On another note about freedom of speech that may pertain to you, Lefty:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/libertycentral/2009/may/27/daily-telegraph-libel-internet

  17. Rose,

    There’s a far more pertinent link between Jeremy’s moralising against censorship ….

    “I have to say, I’m not really comfortable with this at all”

    …. And Jeremy’s implementation of censorship just two blog posts below this one:

    Haha, true, it ain’t News Ltd at all. Now that’s called attention to detail!

    Nice one Jezza:

    “*EDIT BY SITEOWNER: No spamming links to that lying stalker’s site from here.”

    http://anonymouslefty.wordpress.com/2009/05/25/why-would-they-believe-what-we-work-so-hard-to-convince-them/#comments

    Apparently, some lies are too offensive for people to read.

    And they’re not even close to Holocaust denial.

  18. RA, your free speech rights don’t extend to my having to publish everything you feel like writing.

    Last warning on that subject or you’re on permanent moderation.

    (And as for those lies in question – unlike the Holocaust, which has plenty of historians researching it, the onus of countering that person’s relentless smears against me would fall on me alone, and frankly I’ve got better things to do than play his stupid little game.)

  19. Shane Lyons

    Jeremy said: “But so what?
    “He’s not the equivalent of the man in the metaphorical theatre who shouts “fire”! He’s not the man who stands up and tries to incite an angry mob to smash synagogue windows, or beat up muslim immigrants, or purge unbelievers. Not on the evidence before that court, anyway.”

    First of all, I agree with your free speech principles wholeheartedly, but:

    Toben, like all Holocaust deniers, *is* someone who is trying to revive Jew-hatred as a mainstream attitude of society. He isn’t merely expressing his deranged opinions. He is part of a campaign to influence public thought. Okay, they’re not trying to stir up angry mobs immediately but they have a long-term desire to insinuate their beliefs into society, which is probably worse.
    I think you underestimate their ability to convince people of their horseshit. Sure, there’s plenty of evidence that the Holocaust actually happened, but if people aren’t already aware of it they *can* be duped and made skeptical by pseudo-historians and pseudo-scientists. Especially kids and the otherwise credulous. I believe there are more of them than you maybe think. I hope I’m wrong.

    But I agree that jailing these knob-ends is probably counterproductive.

  20. Shane Lyons

    PS: It’s been 4-5 years since I paid close attention to Toben’s website, but at the time he was publishing “articles” in German without English translations. He was clearly aiming at an audience in Germany and Austria, two of the places most ripe for a large revival of Nazism, which is why the German authorities were after him back then (and probably still are).

    Freedom of Speech isn’t a clearcut issue because it is almost always about the freedom (or not) to influence the thought and behaviour of others. But strategies other than prison (and martyrdom) seem to be in short supply.

  21. This is a serious matter. A person has been dragged through the courts for more than 10 years and now has been jailed all for for the dreadful crime of expressing his views. If you thought you lived in a free or decent country you are mistaken.

    It is horrific that the judiciary has allowed itself to take on the role of the thought police.

    And now we are treated to risible cant like “First of all, I agree with your free speech principles wholeheartedly, but….”. Why pretend to care about free speech? You are just compounding hypocrisy with your stupidity. Why not just come out and say “People have no right to say things I find offensive” or “People must be prevented from saying anything divisive or dangerous”.

    This attack on free speech is far more dangerous than anything Toben said.

  22. A person has been dragged through the courts for more than 10 years and now has been jailed all for for the dreadful crime of expressing his views.

    I acknowledge it’s a fine point, but he’s being jailed for contempt of court, not for publishing rubbish.

  23. Zoot, Toben’s contempt consisted of failing to take down his web site. The moment you refuse to abide by an order of the court, in this case, take down your web page, you are in contempt. If you do not accept the court’s order to shut you up you go to jail.

    Toben was jailed for refusing to shut up. It is the court that is contemptible, not Toben’s insistence that he has the right to free speech.

  24. Got an email from someone purporting to be Toben thanking me for thinking about “outlawing having opinions”.

    Of course, that’s somewhat ironic given the attitude to free speech of the historical regime he defends…

  25. The issue is no longer what Toben said. The fact that most people find it muddled, offensive and even hypocritical is hardly the point.

    The point is that Toben has been dragged through the courts for over a decade, he has incurred significant legal costs, been ordered to pay the costs of his accusers and has now been jailed. All for the crime of having a wrong opinion and refusing to recant.

  26. Got another one! Apparently, if you mention Toben at all – even calling him an “idiot”, as I did in this post – you get added to his emailing list.

    A warning if anyone else was thinking of writing on the topic.

  27. He should be in jail by now. Maybe he is appealing?

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