April 7, 1998


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—Can a few drops of poison threaten a whole stream?

Such could be the effect of hate speech on the rushing waters of the Internet. The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith warns about the dramatic increase in racist and other right-wing Web sites in the U.S.; some commentators assert that we have to put some controls on the Net. In Canada, the public is incensed over a British Columbian Internet provider who specializes in neo-Nazi and white supremacist sites.

Europeans are even more disturbed, and are openly talking about new mechanisms like filters and hot lines to help remove hate material. The reaction is understandable. Most European countries are just two generations past Nazi domination, and many have laws against promoting racism or even denying that the Holocaust took place.

Nor is right-wing violence simply historical. Waves of murders swept through Germany after reunification, and are still taking place in many Eastern European countries. While the neo-Nazis have held back from attacking the few Jews left in this region, they find Turks, Kurds, and Romani fair game.

In the United States, 8,759 hate crimes have been reported in the past year (leaving one only to guess how many people fail to report the crimes out of fear or other forms of discouragement). In France, Northern Italy, and Australia, right-wing groups that boldly take their thuggery to the streets have become mass parties.

But the inevitable appearance of this persistent disease on the Internet gives us a chance to examine the relationship between speech and action. It is quite a complicated one.

I would never argue that racist tracts have social value; nothing would be lost from public debate if we could get rid of their venal mixture of outright lies and appeals to the rawest emotions (such as claiming that immigrants are responsible for bringing AIDS into the country).

But restrictions on free expression are always applied by governments to the left as well as the right. If the Aryan nation and white power tracts are prohibited on the grounds of violence, so would the 1960s’ Black Panther “Off the pigs” rhetoric. I trust that nobody bears nostalgia for the urban guerrilla movements of the 60s and 70s, but evocations of those times remind us that challenges to the status quo are often couched in language that rulers find offensive.

The Nazis and nativists, who use marches and leafletings as a way to provoke murder rather than debate, forfeit their rights to use public forums. But the question is whether restrictions on them hurt the rights needed by the rest of us. To understand why online censorship is wrong, we have to look at the difference between the Internet and other forms of right-wing recruitment.

There is a stark difference between marching through a public space, or even distributing leaflets, and putting a page on the Web. When the Klan holds a rally in the town square, or deposits tracts in a neighborhood, they are establishing their physical presence. They force their attention on the public, including their intended victims (whereas an Internet site is seen by nobody except those who choose to go there).

The fascists clearly imply that wherever they show up to leaflet today, they could come to bang heads tomorrow. That is why a black, Jew, or gay person feels terror when he comes out on his porch to find a Klan leaflet. What bothers them is not the offensive speech, but the threat of physical violence.

It is thus incumbent on the rest of us, when Nazis and KKKers make an appearance, to counter them by a physical show of force. A rally of several thousand workers, racial minorities, and other targets of hatred could turn intimidation back on the intimidators. Such rallies in the United States in the 1980s kept the fascists relatively in hiding.

An Internet site is different in its effect. Certainly it may be offensive, and perhaps even verbally threatening. If it calls for direct and specific acts of violence, it may well be grounds for prosecution. But it is not a physical presence; its virtuality renders it more ludicrous than dangerous.

Vague blustering about violence does not qualify as enough of a public danger to take legal action. For instance, I would disagree with the decision of the Spanish Supreme Court to prosecute a Basque separatist group for a video showing them with guns, just as I would oppose any prosecution of Black Panthers in the 1960s for their “Off the pigs” statements.

When we turn from general posturing to direct threats, the Internet can be treated just like any other medium. On February 10, when a U.S. District Court determined that a man had committed civil rights violations in sending death threats to Asian students over email, they were appropriately applying the same standard that they would for letters or phone calls.

Racial and religious hatred is serious business, but we must not weaken freedoms in the course of prosecuting it. We need to use all media and forums to spread a contrasting message. An old leftist tenet goes, “The solution to right-wing propaganda is not to suppress the right-wing press, but to expand the workers’ press.” Offered potentially infinite bandwidth on the Internet, we should concentrate on taking advantage of the chance to spread as much truth as we can.

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