Free speech today is often considered a conservative talking point. Both moderates and extremists alike bemoan the violation of free speech protections on college campuses and social networks, and the debate seems to lead only to a dead end. To those growing tired of this repetitive narrative or curious about its limitations, I highly recommend Hillel’s trip to Poland, which this year ran during Spring Break.
As a bit of background, one month ago Poland’s president signed a bill which had been passed by their Senate in February, stating that anyone who falsely claims that the Polish Nation or Republic of Poland is responsible for Nazi war crimes committed on Polish soil is subject to up to three years in prison. From a factual standpoint, the Germans usurped Polish sovereignty when they invaded Poland in 1939, and therefore the Polish state is definitionally not responsible for German war crimes. Although some individual Polish citizens were of course complicit, it would still be incorrect to place the blame on Poland as a whole. Poles rightly view themselves as victims of WWII as well; they were only one rung above Jews in the Nazis’ racial ladder and suffered horrific casualties during the war. This bill, then, is a reaction to commonly-used phrases such as “Polish death camps,” which Poles believe falsely accuse them of Nazi war crimes and find deeply offensive. Importantly, the bill is an addition to a pre-existing law which outlaws Holocaust denial, so criticism that the law effectively engages in Holocaust denial is also misleading. The law has also thus far gone widely unenforced; in fact, one of speakers on Hillel’s trip told us that he had purposely tried to flaunt the law and get arrested and hadn’t been able to find anyone willing to prosecute him.
Despite all this, the law’s rampant violation of free speech makes it objectionable, as it disincentivizes honest conversation around an incredibly controversial topic. Although the law technically does not punish academics for criticizing individuals Poles for aiding the Nazis, how precisely the law will be enforced remains ambiguous. Even if the law is not interpreted broadly, most people may still choose not to risk its violation. Within Poland, minority groups are outraged and have expressed concern over an increase in anti-Semitic incidents following the law’s passage. World leaders have responded with horror: France chastised, the U.S. thundered, and Israel threatened to withdraw its ambassador. In parallel motion, Stanford Hillel took a firm “no” stance to the law and had trip participants read articles and meet with academics who were firmly against the law. Yet amongst ordinary Poles, there has been little backlash. In fact, over the period since the amendment was passed, the ruling Right-wing Law and Justice Party has even enjoyed a slight increase in popularity.
Within American politics, freedom of speech is a topic of great self-righteousness on both fronts. As the Left adopts an increasingly politicized definition of “hate speech,” including even the most mundane topics like “microaggressions,” the Right pats itself on the back for defending natural liberties. Yet in Poland, where progressives have been voted almost entirely out of government, the Right instead restricts the speech of the Left. Thus, the urge to restrict freedom of speech appears to result from human nature rather than something inherent to any ideology. In free societies, restrictions occur when ideological groups realize that they have the upper hand, and that the easiest way to maintain that power is to silence opposition, or grow offended at ideas they find discomfiting.
This provides insight into why, historically, free speech restrictions on American campuses have tended to persecute the far left. Removed from Polish history and culture, both the American Left and Right would likely condemn Poland’s recent free speech restriction. Yet when embroiled in our own country’s political conflicts, it is harder to adopt a more objective perspective on free speech. Thus, both the Right and Left could benefit from understanding that free speech is not the issue of any particular ideology, but rather a natural human tendency which both sides must work and strive to avoid.
I would therefore highly recommend this trip to liberal and conservative students alike, with the caveat that students who attend the trip should make certain to obtain a balanced perspective. Given the Right’s near unanimous support in Poland, it was a little bit strange to travel there and hear only from left-wing Polish academics, despite their limited role in Polish elected government. It was even stranger that among the many speakers and articles we were exposed to, never once did anyone mention that Holocaust denial is also illegal in Poland. Although the trip was fascinating, it took a stance rather than balancing perspectives.
To those with academic interest in the issue, I would strongly recommend reading a few defenses of both the Law and Justice Party and their controversial law, not because you will agree with them (their beliefs are in fact quite alien even to American conservative Republicans), but because one of the great advantages to having freedom of speech is that we can investigate all perspectives even those that we dislike. In a country where we are rapidly losing this right, exercising that power is imperative. In Poland, the government is creating an enforced echo-chamber for right-wing politics, and if we as Stanford students don’t take steps to investigate all sides of issues, we run the risk of creating the very same trap.
If you have any questions about Hillel’s trip and/or resources about Polish politics, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org