Valuing Free Speech and the Challenge of Living in a Democracy

Americans know it’s not always pleasant to watch free speech in action.

As we witnessed this summer in Charlottesville, free speech can be hateful. It can be corrosive and demeaning. And yet, as Americans, we are dedicated to protecting free speech to a degree that our counterparts in other countries find astonishing—even ill-considered. It’s part of our Constitution, and part of our national character.

A 2015 Pew Research Center study of attitudes in 38 countries found that Americans are more tolerant of free speech than citizens of any other nation. Seventy-one percent of US respondents said they believe people should be able to say and write what they like without government interference or censorship.

Our full-throated commitment to free speech doesn’t mean we always have an easy relationship with it—the First Amendment has faced countless legal challenges from those who argue that our freedom of speech has actually become a freedom to intimidate, or a freedom to instill fear. That tension was famously on display in 1978, when the city government of Skokie, Illinois, filed a suit to stop neo-Nazis from marching through their town. At the time, Skokie, a suburb of Chicago, was home to an unusually high number of Holocaust survivors, and the mayor and other officials argued that the neo-Nazis’ right to free speech paled in comparison to the survivors’ right not to be terrorized. The ACLU stepped in to defend the neo-Nazis’ First Amendment rights, and the case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the ACLU and the First Amendment. The neo-Nazis never marched in Skokie—they took their awful, legally-protected speech to Chicago, instead.

As a writer and researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, I know that the Skokie case remains painfully relevant, even today. I know how challenging it can be to balance the legal right to free speech with the much more human need for all citizens to feel safe.

My job involves monitoring and writing about some of the most hateful groups and people in America—from the Ku Klux Klan to neo-Nazis to anti-Muslim extremists. Every day, my colleagues and I are confronted with images and words of hate and vitriol. We read about Richard Spencer’s dreams for a white ethnostate. We listen to Milo Yiannopoulos disparage transgender people. We watch videos of speeches by anti-Muslim bigots like Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney, who capitalize on fear and xenophobia and blame an entire religion for the actions of a few extremists.

We listen to these hateful people speak because it’s part of our jobs. We also listen because we need to know what they are saying. Their speech is real, and it affects people’s lives. And that’s the main reason we need to protect their right to speak publicly and freely.

Hateful speech that is muffled or suppressed will still exist. It will just go underground, where it has the potential to become even more powerful. People who are prone to extremism are often drawn to ideas and movements that society deems inappropriate.

I’m also a firm believer in countering vile speech with good speech. Whenever neo-Nazis march, the rest of us have to show up to peacefully protest the swastikas, racism and anti-Semitism on display. Whenever a Klan group leaves recruitment fliers on suburban doorsteps, the rest of us need to come together and make sure that every member of our community feels supported and safe.

The First Amendment is a right that confers huge responsibility. At this moment in history, the responsibility part of the equation seems to be falling to those of us who believe in civil rights, equality, and kindness.

Students who are keeping up with the news will undoubtedly have questions, and possibly concerns, about the practicability and ethics of protecting free speech, even when that speech feels confrontational, offensive, or just plain wrong. It’s a conundrum that can feel uncomfortable, and it’s important to allow the conversation to be in that place of discomfort. That’s where real critical thinking happens—about individual rights and the responsibilities inherent in living in a democracy. Ask your students how they feel about the rights of neo-Nazis to march in Skokie. Ask them how they might respond to a hateful person coming to speak in their city. Allow them to take up the different sides of the arguments, and help them understand that while the First Amendment is a bedrock principle, applying it fairly and objectively isn’t always easy.

After all, it’s no small feat to respect an individual’s right to express bigoted ideas. But that’s what Americans have always done. Just as one bigot has the right to speak his mind, the rest of us have a responsibility to let him know we’re watching, we oppose his hate—and we’re not going away.

Jessica Reaves is the senior writer and communications specialist at ADL’s Center on Extremism. The views expressed here are hers alone.

Now What?

In the face of the ugly and violent expressions of Neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideology seen this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, we asked the question: What choices will we make? What will we tolerate?

It’s been inspiring to see the ways in the past 48 hours that people all over the country are making a choice, taking a stand, and letting their voices be heard. As friends, educators, parents, and those interested in advancing Holocaust education and working to combat hate, we hope you’ll consider some of the following action steps:

(1) If you are a teacher or know a teacher, check out/pass along our professional development programs and online resources to support meaningful Holocaust education.

(2) Inquire about how the Holocaust and genocide are taught in your local schools. Advocate for teachers’ access to professional learning opportunities.

(3) Find out if your state mandates the teaching of the Holocaust and other genocides, and what you can do to support these policies.

(4) Volunteer and support organizations that promote Holocaust education, combat hate, and work for social justice. You can begin by contacting your local ADL office here.

(5) Educate yourself about hate groups and extremism in the United States. Recruitment of young people is a primary focus of these groups.

(6) Stay connected with us! Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

We are guided by the words of Elie Wiesel, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

Thank you for your commitment!

Contemporary Antisemitism in our Classrooms

In my role at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), I manage a suite of programs that provide resources and educational opportunities for students, parents, and teachers that focus on empowering individuals to stand up in the face of anti-Semitism, bigotry, and hate. In recent years, we have taken a hard look at anti-Semitism in middle schools and high schools and our findings have been alarming.

ADL’s most recent annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, noted that we, “continue to receive a troubling number of complaints about children, adolescents, and teenagers engaging in anti-Semitic behavior, both on and off school grounds. These incidents include physical assaults, threats of violence, and verbal and written taunts promoting anti-Semitic stereotypes or evoking disturbing Holocaust themes.” Sadly, and shockingly, it is common today for students to find swastikas etched into desks or drawn on bathroom doors, stereotypes about Jews having big noses or being cheap and greedy are heard regularly, and using phrases such as “Don’t be such a Jew” or “Stupid Jew” have become almost commonplace.  

In fact, recent focus groups with middle and high school students revealed that instances of anti-Jewish remarks and Holocaust “jokes” sometimes actually increase during and immediately after curricular units on the Holocaust. One student shared, “I received comments on ask.fm [an anonymous social media site] calling me a dirty Jew, JAP [Jewish American Princess], and worst of all, saying I should burn in the oven with the rest of the Jews. I was incredibly disturbed and worried that there was someone who was so anti-Semitic that they would post something so threatening to me.”

So, what is going on here? What are we seeing with these findings?

If we are teaching effectively about the Holocaust, how is it that students are not making the connection between their own actions and the importance of stopping bias and bigotry before it escalates?  In our Bearing Witness programs with Catholic school educators, we speak with teachers about how teaching about the Holocaust necessitates context. It is helpful if teachers guide their students in seeing the complexity of this event as part of a bigger conversation about historical and contemporary anti-Semitism, as well as other forms of bias and bigotry in our world today.

Anti-Semitism, bias, and bigotry existed for millennia before the Holocaust and did not end with the defeat of the Nazis. Rather than seeing anti-Semitism as one small component in the history of the Holocaust, it can instead be helpful to think about the Holocaust as one small piece in the history of anti-Semitism. In this way, we can help students to recognize that they must play a role in combatting this hatred that continues to be present in our lives today, and empower them to take a stance against contemporary manifestations of bias and prejudice.

In this time of increasing divisiveness in our country, when people are targeted because of who they are—their gender, religion, national origin, etc.—it is more important than ever that educators integrate the important lessons about the Holocaust with teaching about concepts of prejudice and hate today.  Echoes and Reflections has excellent resources in Lesson 9: Perpetrators, Collaborators, and Bystanders and a new resource  on Contemporary Anti-Semitism, that encourage students to consider the importance of taking action when they see bigotry and prejudice exhibited in their own lives.

As teachers think about how best to teach about the Holocaust, and to raise these difficult and complicated topics with their students, I also recommend these 10 Planning Implementation Guidelines and 10 Approaches to Help you teach from Echoes and Reflections. While we can never be fully sure how our students may react to the content, these guidelines can be useful to help set the stage for a thoughtful and respectful learning experience.

Let’s Have a Discussion! How do you address these complex issues with your students and bring them “safely in and safely out”?

Naomi Mayor is the Director of Campus and Community Education Programs for the Anti-Defamation League where she develops new curriculum resources and training materials to address anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias at universities and in schools.

Defending Truth – Holocaust Denial in the Classroom

The recent film Denial, which recounts Deborah E. Lipstadt’s legal battle for historical truth against David Irving, who accused her of libel when she declared him a Holocaust denier, provides an opportunity to critically examine Holocaust denial and contemporary antisemitism. For students, analyzing the ways that what they have learned about the Holocaust debunks the assertions of deniers allows them to reach important conclusions based on evidence.

Echoes and Reflections sat down with Dan Leshem, PhD, Director of the Kupferberg Holocaust Center at Queensborough Community College, CUNY, and former Program Manager of the Holocaust Denial on Trial website (HDoT.org), to learn more about what teachers should know as they consider this topic from an educational perspective.

What is Holocaust Denial?

“Holocaust denial is a very strange concept and a very difficult thing to teach,” Leshem explains, “because it requires student to hold a lot of things in their mind at the same time… Students have to reflect on the historical truth of the Holocaust while also considering the denier’s claim, think about why someone would deny the Holocaust, question the way denying the Holocaust hurts the people that were there, and how it hurts Jewish people today. Holocaust denial becomes a complicated story.”

Leshem emphatically states that the most important thing to know is that Holocaust denial is antisemitism. “There is no other reason that it exists other than to hurt Jews and rehabilitate the image of Hitler and the Nazi party.” He goes on to add that, many of the most vehement Holocaust deniers are antisemites as well as being anti-immigrant, racist, misogynistic, homophobic haters of all “others”.

Much of denial focuses on inserting doubt or suspicion into the narrative about the Holocaust and presenting assertions as if they are historical fact and historical proof. “Offering a series of logical fallacies is less detectable. Insert enough doubt and people start to think that ‘maybe there is more to the story than I was told.’”

Dr. Lipstadt uses the term “immoral equivalencies” to describe these logical fallacies. In an interview transcript on HDOT, she explains that Holocaust deniers will say, “Yes, the Germans had camps (because they can’t deny that there were concentration camps. Those were reported even in the German press, which was hardly a free press, but everybody knew there was this system of concentration camps), but the Americans had camps too… they did bad, we did bad, in war bad things happen.” The danger in these assertions, Lipstadt explains, is more than that they’re completely false. It is that, “There is no moral equivalency for the Holocaust,” so deniers need to negate its significance to further their own hateful agenda.

Common Contentions of Holocaust Deniers

According to Leshem there are, at the heart of deniers’ rhetoric, two core themes: that the Jewish people were not the victims but the victimizers, and that the material evidence of a genocide were all fabricated.

In Lipstadt’s trial, Richard Evan’s expert witness report listed the following common contentions:

  1. The number of Jews killed by the Nazis was far less than six million; it amounted to only a few hundred thousand, and was thus similar to, or less than, the number of German civilians killed in Allied bombing raids.
  2. Gas chambers were not used to kill large numbers of Jews at any time.
  3. Neither Hitler nor the Nazi leadership in general had a program of exterminating Europe’s Jews; all they wished to do was to deport them to Eastern Europe.
  4. ‘The Holocaust’ is a myth invented by Allied propaganda during the war and sustained since then by Jews who wish to use it to gain political and financial support for the state of Israel. The supposed evidence for the Nazis’ wartime mass murder of millions of Jews by gassing and other means was fabricated after the war.

“It can be very challenging to debunk some of these ideas if you’re not an expert,” Leshem adds. These contentions require one to be knowledgeable about the Holocaust and able to point to all the pieces of evidence that negate each claim.

Is Denial Unique to the Holocaust?

“Denial is the last stage of every genocide,” Leshem explains citing Gregory H. Stanton, noted Professor in Genocide Studies and Prevention at George Mason University and President of Genocide Watch. Stanton’s extensive work in genocide studies led to his paper, The 8 Stages of Genocide, which offers a framework that is now used throughout the world. “There isn’t a group in history that has experienced a genocide, that does not have a group that is trying to deny it… The difference with the Holocaust is that the government of Germany has made a conscious effort to acknowledge what they did.”

To most people, given the evidence, to question whether the Holocaust happened or the facts surrounding it is irrational; it is one of the most documented events in human history. And yet, as we move farther away from the event in history, and with the enormous amount of information and misinformation shared through the Internet, students may have seen or heard some of the propaganda that Holocaust deniers spread.

If the topic comes up in class, Leshem recommends approaching it as an opportunity to teach critical thinking and research.  Challenge students to consider, “How do you evaluate the credibility of your source? Where did you get your information?” He also recommends that students dig deeper into their research to find multiple credible sources to measure evidence against. “In this day in age it is also a digital literacy question… If your source is comments on YouTube, how good is that source compared to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum?”

Teaching Resources

Echoes and Reflections provides students and teachers with authentic primary sources, survivor testimony, and historical facts, that reveal what took place. If students, or adults are voicing myths and misinformation about the Holocaust,  HDOT’s Debunking Holocaust Denial provides historical data to refute the most common assertions and provides fact sheets for debunking Holocaust denier claims.

Additionally, consider these new resources from Echoes and Reflections:

  • Teacher’s Discussion Guide – The new film Denial recounts Deborah E. Lipstadt’s legal battle for historical truth against David Irving, who accused her of libel when she declared him a Holocaust denier.
  • Contemporary Antisemitism Resource – Provides an opportunity for students to understand that antisemitism did not end after the Holocaust, and tools for interpreting data and content students encounter on and offline.

Dan Leshem, Ph.D. is the Director of the Kupferberg Holocaust Center at Queensborough Community College.