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Even in the West, Free Speech is  not an Absolute Right

Freedom of speech has been a hot topic in the news lately. It is one of the pillars of Western society, but, as newspaper editors in Europe recently learned, free speech is a concept some people in the world believe ought to be limited.

Riots in predominantly Muslim countries over the publication of religiously offensive cartoons have caused some to assert that the debate is one of "The West versus The Rest." But even in Western societies, the right to express oneself is not absolute.

Next month, for example, America's Public Broadcasting system, or "PBS," will air a documentary called "The Armenian Genocide." It will explore the circumstances surrounding the deaths of an estimated 1.2 million Armenians who lived in the Ottoman Empire during and after World War I.

The overwhelming consensus among Western scholars is that these deaths constitute the first genocide of the 20th century. But the Turkish government disputes that conclusion, saying the deaths were not the result of state-sponsored extermination, and cannot, therefore, be called "genocide."

Following the documentary, PBS plans to air a 25-minute panel discussion that includes two scholars who embrace the widely dismissed view of the Turkish government.

"We're certainly concerned about this, and we feel this program really has no place on public television," says Elizabeth Chouldjian of the Armenian National Committee of America, which has called on PBS not to broadcast the panel discussion. "Just as one would not give equal time to Holocaust deniers to get up on PBS and talk about their incorrect views," Chouldjian says, "similarly one shouldn't cloud the issue and misguide viewers by bringing known genocide deniers to this type of equation."

PBS did not respond to VOA's requests for an interview. But Elizabeth Chouldjian's assertion that the network would never give airtime to deniers of the Jewish Holocaust has captured some people's attention, particularly in light of the recent conviction of David Irving, the British historian who was sentenced in Vienna to three years' jail-time for breaking an Austrian law that forbids denial of the Holocaust.

According to Robert Kahn, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who has written extensively about laws governing Holocaust denial, free speech in the West is not an absolute right. It is tempered, Kahn says, by a complex system of legal and self-imposed censorship that's almost always derived from a society's history.

"The countries that tend to have the laws that specifically ban Holocaust denial -- France, Germany, and Austria --- either participated in the Holocaust or had serious problems with collaboration," he says. "Even though the United States and Canada have large Jewish communities, and have survivors and people who experienced the Holocaust, it's not the same type of thing."

It is not illegal in the United States to deny the Holocaust, just exceedingly undiplomatic, given the number of survivors who came to this country after the war, and no one who wants to enjoy mainstream credibility would ever do it. That does not mean, though, that speech in America is without any legal restrictions. Robert Kahn says there are a number of state and federal laws that limit expression.

"There are some types of speech, like cross burning, which, when done to intimidate, are illegal," Kahn says. "In a lot of states, particularly in the U.S. South, you're not allowed to demonstrate while wearing a mask. These rules are basically connected up with the role of the (Ku Klux) Klan in American history, and tend to show that societies are very concerned about speech that talks about prior acts of racism…they have committed."

But it is not just negative, or "ugly" history that causes some western societies to impose official and unofficial limits on free speech. Professor Kahn points to the fact that no major American newspapers chose to publish the cartoons of Mohammed that generated controversy when they were distributed throughout Europe. "The United States is a religious country and understands the idea of respecting or disrespecting someone else's religion," he says. "Whereas you could make an argument that Europe is much more secular, and that therefore the idea that you would run something that profanes the Prophet is not as big a deal."

Meanwhile, PBS has not announced any plans to cancel its broadcast of the panel discussion, which was taped in early February, and is scheduled to air on April 17th.