Two exceptionally harsh blows were stuck against freedom of speech last week.

The first when an Austrian court sentenced British historian David Irving to three years in prison for denying the holocaust in a speech he delivered seventeen years ago.

The second blow was the indictment of animal rights activist Rod Coronado for a speech he gave in 2003. Mr Coronado is facing twenty years in prison.

David Irving did indeed deny the holocaust and his ludicrous assertions that ignore historical evidence make him a very incompetent and contemptible historian indeed. He is not a very admirable human being and can legitimately be described as a racist.

However he did not injure anyone. He certainly did not kill anyone. He did not damage or steal anyone's property. All he did was voice an opinion. And for that he has been sentenced to three years in a prison.

Rod Coronado, who refers to himself as an unofficial Earth Liberation Front spokesman, was convicted of a felony crime for animal rights activism and served five years in a US federal prison.

He was indicted last week for giving a speech in 2003 about the activities that led to his arrest and imprisonment.

Mr Coronado was arrested near his home in Tucson, Arizona and after arraignment is expected to be transferred to San Diego, California for trial.

Last year, 3 activists were jailed for refusing to co-operate with the grand jury that indicted Mr Coronado. Danae Kelley, who was imprisoned for 2 months, told Associated Press following her release in October: "In the world of secret grand juries, nothing is known, targets aren't confirmed, and indictments haunt everyone. Grand juries are like riding a roller coaster blindfolded--anything goes. They have become a serious threat to our constitutional rights, and I encourage every citizen who receives a subpoena to resist and every other to voice support."

This may be easier said than done. Last month dozens of animal right activists were arrested and indicted on charges stemming from information received from informers, most of whom were threatened into giving up names in return for escaping charges themselves.

"It is like the McCarthy witch hunts have been revived with a vengeance," said Erin Jameson, an activist from Eugene, Oregon.

In Europe where cartoons depicting the face of the prophet Muhammad have been condemned, newspapers have been censured and free speech is under open attack by extremists. Cartoons of the holocaust and openly anti-Semitic editorials and cartoons are common in the Muslim world, published, read and approved of by the same people who are screaming racism and intolerance in reaction to the cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

In Iran, imprisonment is the sentence for those who deny the existence of God and there are many in America who would like to see the same treatment given to atheists and pagans.

These are dangerous times when imprisonment is the punishment for voicing an opinion.

What is even more frightening is that the Western media seem shell-shocked and reluctant to question these arrests or even the ridiculous hysteria of the anti-cartoon crowd.

We may not agree with David Irving. We may not agree with Rodney Coronado but we should be defending their right to speak, to think, to voice their opinions in a free and tolerant society. Tolerance means tolerance for all views, not just our own and not just the safe, warm and fuzzy kind.

Freedom of speech is the foundation of all other freedoms. When the foundation collapses that will be the day that democracy, freedom, and liberty expire in Western civilisation and we will enter a new dark age where intolerance, tyranny and dictatorship will reign supreme.

The US constitution is the most powerful enshrinement of the rights of humanity ever made into law. It holds that we must be tolerant of all opinions, philosophies and beliefs. It does not require respect, support or credence given to these beliefs, opinions and philosophies. The freedom to speak must be all inclusive and must protect the Christian, the Muslim, the Jew, the Atheist, the Scientologist, and those who believe the world is as flat as a pancake.

A Lutheran pastor and survivor of a Nazi concentration camp once said: "First they came and took away the communists and I did nothing because I wasn't a communist. Then they took away the Jews and I did nothing because I wasn't Jewish. Then they took away the unionists and again I did nothing because I wasn't in a union. And then, when they came for me, there was no one there to stop it."

We can say that last week they sentenced the holocaust revisionist for voicing his opinion, then they indicted the animal rights activist for speaking about his experiences and we did nothing. When they come for us for questioning God, the government, the corporations, or the war, who will be there to defend us?

Irving's sentence and Coronado's indictment are the foot in the door for the jackboot of intolerance and an encouragement to those who would trample our freedoms.

The question is, will we stand our ground or will we surrender our freedom in return for false promises of security?

* Paul Watson is founder and president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Readers' Views

I must say that your article is the sanest thing I have read in years. I often use the signature line "Though I may not agree with what you say, I will gladly defend your right to say it". It gives me hope to hear you echo the sentiment. How refreshing to hear the voice of reason in the maelstrom bias. Thank you.
- B Cutts