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Poland is wrong to make false history a criminal offense

Poland is wrong to make false history a criminal offense
Polish President Andrzej Duda announces his decision to sign a legislation penalizing certain statements about the Holocaust, in Warsaw on Tuesday. (Alik Keplicz / Associated Press)

The United States was absolutely correct to criticize a new Polish law that makes it a crime to blame Poland for atrocities committed by the Nazis on Polish soil. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, while acknowledging that "terms like 'Polish death camps' are painful and misleading," insisted that such false characterizations must be countered by open debate, scholarship and education, not by criminal sanctions. The new law, Tillerson said, "adversely affects freedom of speech and academic inquiry." He's right.

The law signed this week by Polish President Andrzej Duda states that "whoever accuses, publicly and against the facts, the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich … shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years." There is an exception for utterances "in the course of the one's artistic or academic activity," but that still leaves a lot of speech subject to criminal punishment.

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Even as he signed the law, Duda referred it to Poland's Constitutional Tribunal, leaving open the possibility that it might be modified. It certainly should be. To make it illegal to express a view about history — even if that view is incorrect — is an egregious act of preemptive censorship.

Poland is understandably sensitive to unfair characterizations of its role in the crimes of what was, after all, an occupying power. It was Germans, not Poles, who built and operated the death camps at Auschwitz and Treblinka. While individual Poles no doubt collaborated with the Nazis, that's no justification for besmirching the entire nation.

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But criminalizing false opinions about history is inconsistent with principles of free speech and free inquiry. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

To be sure, those principles are sometimes ignored for the sake of political convenience, and Poland isn't alone in attempting to criminalize attempts to rewrite history. In 2012, France enacted a law making it a crime to deny that the Ottoman Turks committed genocide against Armenians in 1915. The law was later ruled unconstitutional by France's Constitutional Council, though it remains a crime in France — and in some other countries — to deny the Holocaust.

Poland's new law sacrifices an important individual freedom — freedom of speech — on the altar of offended national pride.

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