Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. Photo by AP
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SYDNEY — Prominent U.S. civil liberties lawyer Alan Dershowitz has weighed in on the fierce debate here over government proposals to restrict the country’s race hate laws, irking Jewish leaders who are waging a concerted campaign to retain legislation they have successfully used to litigate against Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites and religious extremists.

Dershowitz, whose books include “The Case for Israel,” argued in The Australian last week that banning racist ideas gives the proponents “a megaphone.”

Citing the neo-Nazis who in 1978 were banned from marching in Skokie, Illinois, Dershowitz wrote: “A one-day story turned into a yearlong debate about the limits of free speech. In the process the neo-Nazis were able to spread their hateful message widely.”

Dershowitz argued that hateful words are a price worth paying for the right to free speech.

“History has proved that the best answer to bad speech is good speech, that the best answer to falsehood is truth, and that the best answer to hate is brotherhood and sisterhood,” he wrote. “Freedom of speech isn’t free. It’s expensive, but it’s well worth the cost.”

But Peter Wertheim, the executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, countered that the Jewish organization has “not wasted our time chasing every anti-Semite and neo-Nazi nobody down a rabbit-hole.”

It has gone after the big operators, and succeeded, he wrote in an email to Dershowitz.

“We were successful in our complaint against Facebook,” Wertheim wrote. “They removed hundreds of crudely racist images and comments that appeared on 51 Facebook pages.”

Similar efforts in the United States had failed, Wertheim noted, writing: “Our laws have clearly worked better for the Australian Jewish community against Facebook than the U.S. First Amendment has worked for the American Jewish community.”

An editorial in Saturday’s The Australian newspaper concurred with Dershowitz and criticized the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and other major Jewish groups for taking a “narrow approach.”

“Free choice, including opposition to cultural coercion, was one of the 10 founding principles of Israel, which is also a good reason for respecting dissenting views,” the editors argued.

Tony Abbott’s Liberal government, a staunch supporter of Israel, is at loggerheads with Jewish leaders over its proposed amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act.

Last month Attorney General George Brandis released draft amendments, saying the current law, which prohibits publicly offending, insulting, humiliating or intimidating people, is “unreasonably constrictive on freedom of speech.”

Under the government’s draft amendments, it would be illegal only to “intimidate” or “vilify” people because of their “race, color or national or ethnic origin.” And the proposed changes would not apply to anything said in the course of “public discussion.”

“This exception is wide enough to allow people to publish anti-Semitic material if they demonstrate that they were participating in public discussion,” argued barrister Arthur Moses in written advice last week to New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell.

The government’s proposed changes would “open the door to Holocaust deniers,” Moses wrote, according to a report by Fairfax Media.

Adelaide’s most notorious Holocaust denier, Fredrick Toben, was ordered in 2002 to purge offensive material from his website, after the Australian Jewry council successfully invoked the Racial Discrimination Act.

Toben would be allowed to publish with impunity under the proposed new law, Moses argued.

But not all Australian Jews support censorship. Barry Cohen, a former minister in the Labor government of Bob Hawke, recalled on Saturday that he was teased as a “dirty effing Jew” at school and barred from joining a golf club in Sydney because it didn’t accept Jews.

“You cannot change people’s minds by legislation and, if anything, doing so will only make things worse,” wrote Cohen, who lost most of his family in Auschwitz and Chelmno. “It will just drive the bigots underground.”