0

Anti-Semitism on Trial

When Brazil's Supreme Court ruled in the case of Sigfried Ellwanger ­- an editor, author, and notorious Nazi sympathizer - it entered the perilous field where free speech and efforts to contain racism meet. For years, Ellwanger published anti-Semitic books, such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as well as books of Holocaust denial, such as his own Jewish or German Holocaust: Behind the Lie of the Century. By a vote of eight to three, the Court upheld his conviction on charges of racism.

Of course, the enormity of the Holocaust ought to have eradicated anti-Semitism for all time. Shamefully, it did not. In many places, hatred of Jews thrives. Elsewhere - including Europe and the United States - anti-Semitism survives among a fringe of neo-Nazis and renegades like Ellwanger, but also, more widely, in milder forms of prejudice.

But punishing someone criminally for being an anti-Semite and a racist propagandist raises troublesome issues that different countries approach in different ways. To be sure, every country places some limits on speech. As Oliver Wendell Holmes famously put it in a 1919 US Supreme Court decision, "Even the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater and causing a panic."

Banning someone from shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater is not the same, however, as convicting him for holding and propagating an opinion, even a despicable one, such as anti-Semitism. In a democracy, standard restrictions regulate the time, place, and manner of speech in order to prevent imminent violence and civil disorder. They bar threats against, and harassment of, individuals. They forbid libel and fraud.