Labour's bid to ban the albeit indefensible claims that the Holocaust never happened is an attack on free speech, argues Jennie Bristow. Last week Labour MP Mike Gapes successfully introduced a Private Members' Bill to the House of Commons under the ten-minute rule which would make it a criminal offence to claim, whether in writing or orally, that the "policy of genocide against the Jewish people committed by Nazi Germany did not occur".
Coming on top of recently-adopted Labour party policy to make Holocaust denial a crime, and the support given to the underlying proposition by Labour leader Tony Blair as he opened the Anne Frank exhibition at Southwark Cathedral on the same day, the notion that Holocaust denial should become a crime has not come out of the blue. But why has so little fuss been made about these new restrictions on free speech?
The lack of opposition to attacks on Holocaust denial is not surprising. To the majority of people, who know perfectly well that the Holocaust did happen, the substance of the deniers' claims is indefensible. However, ridiculous and prejudiced as Holocaust denial may be, its impact is marginal.
As John Jacobs, a lecturer on the course "The Jewish Holocaust: a case study in genocide", at the University of Sussex, explained, there is by far enough literature on the truth about the Holocaust to outweigh the impact of the few leaflets produced by Holocaust deniers.
Precisely because its impact is so limited, focusing solely on the sordid character of Holocaust denial misses the real danger behind the proposed Bill. That freedom of speech is suddenly up for negotiation on this basis is far more worrying than any number of attempts to deny that the Holocaust happened.
And as academics and students, we have to oppose this policy.
Recent discussions about Holocaust denial, particularly in the United States, have focused on the problem of revisionism specifically in universities. Deborah Lipstadt of the University of Atlanta is one example. In Denying the Holocaust: the growing assault on truth and memory (1994), she puts together an impassioned attack on the ideology of Holocaust denial. For her, the problem is that many academics are prepared to engage in a debate with the deniers, on the basis that to do otherwise is "inconsistent with the free pursuit of ideas for which the academy stands". This "reflects the moral relativism prevalent on many campuses and in society at large".
Her antipathy to the willingness of some academics to spend their time debating whether the Holocaust happened or not is understandable, if not just because it shows that some academics have nothing better to do. But there is a world of difference between criticising certain individuals' teaching practice and calling for a ban on Holocaust denial.
Posing the existence of the Holocaust as the one issue that cannot be discussed immediately draws a distinction between questions that can be asked and those which cannot. It says that there are some issues that are worthy of discussion, and others which should be forcibly suppressed. And this, like it or not, is censorship.
The "free pursuit of ideas" which Lipstadt implicitly criticises is what academia has always stood for. It is what makes historical inquiry and research worthwhile, and what leads to the generation of innovative ideas and important insights. For this reason, the work of many academics has been controversial - sometimes because it is wrong and violently prejudiced, and sometimes because it has proved to be right and liberating.
But in order to develop any ideas at all, and also in order to argue against more reactionary theories, unrestricted academic freedom is as vital as ever.
The trend taking place in universities, in the United Kingdom as much as in the United States, is the imposition of gradual and insidious restrictions on the freedom of academics and students to write and say whatever they want. Among students, this trend has been led by the National Union of Students, whose national executive is made up almost exclusively by the National Organisation of Labour Students.
Over the past few years, NUS has shown no scruples about banning all kinds of prejudiced groups and language, most notably the British National Party in 1994 and the Islamic group Hizb-ut Tahrir in 1995. Holocaust denial may become a big issue at the 1997 conference, as the first set of prioritised motions call for even more stringent restrictions on the activities of "extremist" groups.
Censorship has not stopped at the level of NUS, but filtered down to local colleges and unions. As harassment policies and restrictions on prejudiced language proliferate, academics and students are finding themselves castigated and disciplined for saying the wrong thing.
The high-profile silencing of psychology lecturer and self-confessed "scientific racist" Chris Brand in March 1996 is a case in point. The number of restrictions on prejudiced language in colleges means that many students' unions are unable even to pay lip-service to the absolute right to freedom of speech.
Now, the whole of society seems prepared to endorse a ban on Holocaust denial, with all the broader implications this entails.
A repeat of fascism is not around the corner. However, with the prospect of a Labour victory philistinism and censorship may be just down the road. Can we afford to give up our freedom for a non-existent threat?
Jennie Bristow is a final-year student at the Universityof Sussex.