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Debates have raged over what is protected speech, or speech free of governmental interference; though hate speech did not become an issue until the 1920s and 'meaningful' protection of free speech did not occur until a decade or two later. This paper will examine First Amendment issues as they apply to racialist and hate speech on the internet, beginning with defining white racialism.
White racialism is an umbrella term that includes the widely divergent types of racist social movements and individual racist activities. The term originated among adherents in contemporary white supremacist discourse as a more adequate label for racist activity because it does not limit the individual or group to one particular theme or view. Given the wide variation in so-called white supremacists, the term racialism is much more inclusive of the variety of factions that exist within the broader context of what is labeled a white supremacy. What is usually referred to as the white supremacy often includes skinheads, members of different factions of the Ku Klux Klan, Christian Identity adherents, national socialists, white separatists, and white survivalists.
All of these types of beliefs and activities are discrete forms of white racialism. Each of them possesses unique beliefs, values and organization. To refer to these groups as the same, obscures the real differences between them. Since the term white racialist is self-designated and applied, it is more appropriate than using non-movement interpretations. It is important to note that individuals who engage in hate speech may not be members of a white racialist group. However, many hate-related internet sites are affiliated with racialist organizations. If we, as a society, are to better understand extremism, then we must seriously review and comprehend the views of extremists, which in turn will lead to a better understanding where much of the hate speech on the internet comes from.
Since the beginning of the modern American white racialist movement, after the Second World War, racialists have used a variety of communicative tools to reach prospective members and racialist social movement actors. From the beginning of the movement, traditional print communication has been used (e.g. flyers, newsprint, posters, leaflets, pamphlets, books) as the dominant form of spreading information to prospective members and comrades-in-arms. Today a variety of additional tools are utilized, including computer-mediated communication, radio, music, phone lines/messages, videos and cable television programs.
White racialists regularly use Listserv lists and Bulletin boards as soundboards where they bounce ideas and plans off of each other. Since admittance to these services require subscription of some kind (paid or not), racialists are better able to screen out non-racialists, unlike in the open environment of Usenet. Web sites function in a variety of ways. Where newsgroups, Listserv lists and Bulletin boards are limited in their appearance, organization and activity, web pages allow for a variety of interactions. Web pages bring together all of the functions of the other internet mechanisms because they not only store text information but video, chat and audio communication as well. White racialists regularly use web sites to archive a variety of materials and documents making them available for downloading.
Protecting Hate Speech
One of the many causes taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in an effort to protect internet-based free speech, is 'Cyber-Civil Liberties'. In one of these cases, a group of plaintiffs sued the Board of Trustees of the Loudoun County (Alexandria, Virginia) Library for restricting patron access to sex-related web sites (Mainstream Loudoun et al. v. Board of Trustees of the Loudoun County Library). The court ruled that the Library did unreasonably restrict access. The decision was lauded by the ACLU as a victory in the protection of Cyber-Civil Liberties.
A well-known case fitting under this category involves the web site 'Nuremberg Files'. This site contained clearly articulated information promoting violence, threats, and attacks against doctors and other health professionals participating in the delivery of abortion services. Most notably, there were surveillance photographs of abortion doctors (which included times of movement), home addresses, names and addresses of family members, and license plate numbers. A 'hit list' of abortion doctors was also included on the site and once a doctor on the list was murdered, the name was marked out with a line. As a result of this site, a group coalition of anti-abortion forces was ordered to pay over $100 million in civil penalties for their action. While this example involves civil remedy, the following example is one where criminal prosecution was used. Under the second principle, speech which is determined to be a 'course of conduct' promoting threats to health and well being is not worthy of First Amendment protection. At the University of California at Irvine, a student sent over 50 hate-based e-mail messages to Asian students. The message, signed 'Asian Hater', said that he would 'make it my life career [sic] to find and kill everyone one [sic] of you personally'. The former student received a sentence of one year in prison for these acts.
Conclusion: Can the First Amendment Work in Cyberspace?
Many questions remain, and surely debates will follow, regarding the limits to free speech in a nearly limitless forum - the internet. However, the utility of the internet for research and the dissemination of information is demonstrated in the growing ubiquity of access and presence in American culture. For racialists, the internet has proven a useful tool for educating members in the core beliefs and ideas of the movement. In addition, this form of communication has demonstrated its power in mobilizing racialists for rallies, speeches and demonstrations. However, just as racialists use the internet, so can those with opposing viewpoints, such as individuals and organizations promoting diversity and anti-hate sentiments. Researchers may also use the internet to access racialist materials allowing society to better understand these groups and individuals. Therefore, there may be some advantages in allowing racialists First Amendment protections.
The types of speech not protected by the First Amendment are based on the Court's interpretation. Any attempts to place restrictions on hate speech, which is currently viewed as being protected, would lead to endless debate and controversy. Six years after the Supreme Court ruled that penalty enhancement hate crime laws are constitutional, their decision is still being evaluated and criticized. With hate speech, there is a double edged sword. If all hate speech is restricted, the groups and individuals promoting this speech will feel infringed upon. If only certain categories of hate speech are restricted, segments of the population may feel devalued by society if they are the targets of hate speech not restricted. Regardless of the potential controversy discussed in this essay, the central argument can be summarized as being an issue of free speech and the reluctance to begin down the 'slippery slope' of placing any additional restrictions on hate speech.