On Monday, the French Senate is scheduled to debate and possibly vote on a bill that would criminalize denial of the Armenian genocide of 1915, along with any other events recognized as genocide in French law. The bill has passed the lower house of Parliament. The Senate should reject it, in the name of free speech, the freedom of historical inquiry and Article 11 of France's pathbreaking 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen ("The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious rights.…").
The question is not whether the atrocities committed against the Armenians by the Ottoman Empire were terrible, or whether they should be acknowledged in Turkish and European memory. They were and they should be. The question is: Should it be a crime under the law of France, or other countries, to dispute whether those terrible events constituted a genocide, a term used in international law? And is the French Parliament equipped and entitled to set itself up as a tribunal on world history, handing down verdicts on the past conduct of other nations? The answer: No and no.
The bill also would criminalize "outrageous minimization" of the Armenian genocide. As Françoise Chandernagor of the Liberté pour l'histoire campaign points out, this introduces a concept vague even by the standards of such memory laws. If Turkish estimates of the Armenian dead run at 500,000 and Armenian estimates at 1.5 million, what would count as minimization? 547,000? And should the Turkish prime minister be arrested for such "minimization" on his next official visit to France? (The bill envisages a fine of 45,000 euros and up to a year's imprisonment.)
Taking a benign view of human nature and French politics, you might say that this is a clumsy attempt to realize a noble intention. That would be naive. There is a remarkable correlation between such proposals in the French Parliament and national elections, in which half a million voters of Armenian origin play a significant part. What happened to the Armenians was recognized as genocide under French law in December 2001, just before presidential and parliamentary elections. A bill similar to this one was passed in the lower house in 2006 (but rejected by the upper) in the run-up to the 2007 elections. And what's happening this year? Yes, elections.
Not that all leading politicians of President Nicolas Sarkozy's party have supported the bill. Foreign Minister Alain Juppé opposes it. But that's because he's worried about the implications for France's relations with Turkey. The Turkish government's reaction has been predictably vehement.
Thus a tragedy that should be the subject for grave commemoration and free historical debate, calmly testing even wayward hypotheses against the evidence, is reduced to an instrument of political manipulation, a politician's brickbat.
Meanwhile, Turkish intellectuals who have bravely said that what was done to the Armenians was genocide are liable to be prosecuted in Turkey. What is state-ordained truth in France is state-ordained falsehood in Turkey.
Yet these are increasingly symbolic rather than effective acts. In a country like France, and with rather more difficulty in Turkey, the Internet allows people to find those forbidden views anyway.
So this is but the latest instance of a much wider challenge. What should be the limits and norms of free expression in the Internet age? And who should set them? These are among the questions being addressed in a project called Free Speech Debate (www.freespeechdebate.com) that we have just launched at Oxford University. Among the 10 draft principles we offer for debate, criticism and revision, one is especially relevant to the genocide controversy. It says, "We allow no taboos in the discussion and dissemination of knowledge."
Memory laws like the one proposed in France clearly fail this test, but they are not the only example. In Britain, science writer Simon Singh had to defend a costly libel action because of his criticism of chiropractic claims. The Church of Scientology uses its copyright of the immortal words of L. Ron Hubbard to prevent people seeing the secrets of the Operating Thetan. (Tip: Search for Operation Clambake.) This week, the English-language Wikipedia site was blacked out for 24 hours to protest a proposed U.S. bill, the Stop Online Piracy Act, that, in the current version, would have a disastrous chilling effect on the free, online dissemination of knowledge.