‘The minute we are deciding who has freedom of speech and who doesn’t, you’re on a slippery slope, and you may find yourself on that slope sliding down.’
Deborah Lipstadt, one of today’s great champions of free speech, is in London promoting the film adaptation of her court case battle and victory against David Irving, who attempted to sue her for libel after she accused him of denying the Holocaust. The film, Denial, is due for release on Friday – a symbolic date, as it is Holocaust Memorial Day – and appears already to have sparked some strong reactions. Over the weekend, a defaced poster for the film was removed by police from a London Tube station. A Star of David and the word ‘B-witch’ were daubed across the face of actress Rachel Weisz, who plays Lipstadt.
‘It’s a badge of honour’, declares Lipstadt, and chuckles, soon after I meet her in a hotel in Soho.
The American historian was sued for libel by British historian Irving after she branded him a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. The film is an adaptation of a later book she wrote about her court case experience, Denial: Holocaust History on Trial.
‘It must be an important film if they care enough to go deface a poster’, she says, matter-of-factly. She’s right, and it is an illuminating way to look at the situation. But then, I would expect nothing less from the woman who spent years fighting for truth and free speech.
Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin were sued by Irving in 1996. The subsequent lengthy legal battle culminated in a famous 32-day court case in London in which facts about the Nazis, the Holocaust and truth itself seemed to be on trial. Irving lost and was branded ‘an active Holocaust denier’, ‘anti-Semitic and racist’ by Judge Charles Gray.
The film offers an insight into the bigger issues behind the case, allowing the viewer to see exactly what was at stake.
When I saw the film I hadn’t yet met Lipstadt, but in the short amount of time I got to spend with her I can see Weisz captured her almost perfectly: the New York accent, the forthrightness, the lack of superficiality; her rapid, yet clear way of speaking, denoting a woman who is sure of herself and her principles. There is no waffle with Lipstadt. She seems only to say things worth saying.
She wades straight into the important questions. As I enter the room she’s recalling a previous interview with spiked and an article she wrote for us on Holocaust denial laws, and telling me she stills feels the same way about Holocaust denial being illegal: she’s against it.
‘I’m a firm believer in free speech’, she says. ‘I think that laws outlawing things turn them into forbidden fruit and make them all the more attractive. I don’t want politicians deciding what I can and cannot say. I don’t want politicians saying: this is racist, but that’s not; this is anti-Semitic, but that’s not; this is homophobic, but that’s not. I think it is very dangerous.’
She tells me people find it surprising that she is against laws outlawing Holocaust denial. ‘Because they assume that, of course I’ll be for those laws; of course I’ll want those kinds of limits on free speech, but it’s not true. It is a dangerous thing.’
Lipstadt is more comprehending of similar legislation in countries like Germany and Austria – places which are so much more closely bound to the Nazi atrocities. ‘I understand. I am not for them there, but I understand. I can understand why a Germany, why an Austria, why a Poland would pass such laws. But I still think it is dangerous to allow politicians to adjudicate what can and cannot be said.’