Leading article: The downside of free speech

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The Oxford Union, like most undergraduate debating societies, enjoys controversy, especially when it threatens notoriety. The decision to invite crackpot "historian" David Irving and the leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, to address a free speech event on Monday night has attracted predictable, and understandable, outrage.

Irving was found guilty and served a prison sentence in Austria for the crime of Holocaust denial, while Griffin is nobody's idea of a liberal poster boy. He has a 1998 conviction for incitement to racial hatred for material denying the Holocaust. He was also secretly filmed telling his followers that Islam was a "wicked, vicious faith". He may look respectable in his suit and tie, but he embodies a pretty primitive brand of politics. So the decision of the Defence Secretary Des Browne to cancel an engagement in Oxford at the same time is inevitable, as are the protest rallies in Oxford. Among those taking part have been Holocaust survivors.

They are right to object. The union event looks like a publicity stunt by some ambitious wannabe student politicians. It is offensive to anyone who cares about this country, about history or about human rights. Yet – providing Irving, Griffin and any other nasties who turn up on the night stay within the law – there is no reason to prevent this circus taking place.

While we are suspicious of their motives, the people who run the Oxford Union are right about free speech. The liberty to speak out includes the right to say things that others find hurtful or wrong. This, obviously, is what free speech is. It is a test of the liberal instinct to have to stomach the sight of Irving and Griffin being given a platform for their views – even if they are encouraged to steer away from national socialism and ethnic politics by the Oxford Union. Freedom of speech also means listening to what you don't want to hear.

The point bears repeating. The only reliable way to defeat people such as Irving and Griffin is to win the argument. That means demonstrating the reality of the Holocaust, for which there is still ample, and distressing, eyewitness evidence. It means showing Griffin and his acolytes that Islam is not a "wicked" faith, and that Muslim people in Britain want nothing more than to be able to make a living in peace. It means showing all the Holocaust deniers, racial bigots and neo-Nazi nutters that our democracy is tough enough, and well enough defended, to absorb their abusive nonsense. They should not be gagged; they should be derided.

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