To call restraint on speech “the heckler’s veto” is all too dainty: it’s more like the murderer’s veto. Defenders of the murderer’s veto point out, correctly, that all societies limit some speech—in the U.S., true threats and direct incitement to imminent lawless behavior, for example, are illegal. But if societies really care about freedom of expression, they need to safeguard that right especially in difficult situations, and not undercut it at the slightest sign that someone might be indignant, let alone violent, over something another person said. The Austrian court purported to balance this right against other legitimate social concerns. But if European courts assess freedom of speech at barely a feather’s weight, as it appears in this case, they should spare us their sanctimony and admit that they do not value free expression at all. Have the courage to admit your cowardice.
The previous cause celèbre over free speech in Austria was the English historian David Irving’s incarceration for Holocaust denial in 2005. Too few came to Irving’s defense, for the obvious reason that no one wanted to have to go through the metaphorical delousing process that association with that man entails. But note the trajectory: he was thrown in jail for lies, and now E. S.’s conviction is upheld not even for lying but for taking up one side of a controversy whose facts will almost certainly never be determined. The American system of virtually limitless debate has proved highly capable of discrediting Irving, and of allowing Islamophobes and Islamists to yap at each other. It blames violence on the violent. It is a model sadly unreplicated in the world, and its time has come on continents other than our own.