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Hate speech: US legislature gets down, dirty and confused

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The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony yesterday on the proliferation of hate speech through the Internet. The news is discouraging, but hardly a surprise coming from a country so racked by tribal conflicts and smouldering racial resentments. There are now approximately 600 Web sites, mostly American, devoted to sustaining ethnic division with varying degrees of vehemence, according to testimony. Committee Chairman Orin Hatch (R--Utah) opened the proceedings by registering his indignance. The "anonymity of the Internet," he observed, "is sheltering a league of misfits intent on marketing their brand of hate to America's future." ("America's future" is Yank code for "The Children", by the way.) Even more disturbing, Hatch observed, is the recent phenomenon of Internet hate groups directing slick appeals towards "college-bound middle and upper-middle class kids...the ones you would never expect to see marching in a neo-Nazi group." And perhaps this is all that's relevant here. No one ever imagined it would be worthwhile trying to reform the stereotypical turd-kicking, gob-spewing racist ploughboy; but college-bound middle and upper-middle class kids are another matter. Clearly, the flower of American youth is in peril. Co-chairman Patrick Leahy (D--Vermont) agreed, claiming that "the Internet has been poisoned by extremists and bigots." He proposed strengthening federal hate-crime legislation in order to "increase tolerance and understanding among all Americans." We are not sure how prosecuting a lot of ignorant yobs for expressing their bigotry might foster tolerance and understanding, but the Senator, no doubt, is a wiser man than most. Wade Henderson, Executive Director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in Washington, D.C., firmly delineated the line between hate speech, which is constitutionally protected, and hate crimes, which are illegal actions against persons or property. He urged the Committee not to attempt any form of Web censorship: "There was a time, not too long ago, when the civil rights movement was seen as subversive or offensive," he recalled. "Now that we are in the mainstream, and the bigots are on the fringes, we will not abandon the principles and protections that brought us to where we are today." The appropriate answer to hate speech, Henderson insisted, is not censorship but well-reasoned contradictory speech. "Reason will prevail over ignorance in the marketplace of ideas," he argued. Howard Berkowitz, National Chair of the Anti-Defamation League in Washington, D.C., announced that ADL has developed a filter which blocks access to Web sites advocating hatred or violence towards groups on the basis of sex, religion, race or sexual orientation. The filter, which can be downloaded from ADL's Web site, includes a "redirect" feature which presents to users accessing a blocked site context-sensitive links to related ADL "educational materials". Berkowitz suggested that the filter could be used in libraries and schools, but stopped short of advocating its exclusive use in such venues. More palatable to him would be a scheme whereby libraries and schools would make unrestricted Web access available to adults, but filter access for children under the age of fifteen. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, would take matters a bit further. Noting that only one in ten hate groups operate from their own domains, the Rabbi suggested that the problem could be vastly diminished if ISPs and Web hosts were to "get rid of the other nine." It would "put a significant crimp in the links" among online hate groups, he predicted. Cooper argued that shaming ISPs and Web hosts into disabling hateful sites "is an action which... all Americans are behind; the only question is, 'will the Internet community do this on their own or do they have to be pushed by the US Congress?'" "We prefer if we don't have to come to the government, but... possibly in [the area of hate speech] alone, some basic, common-sense regulations may be necessary," he concluded. Chairman Hatch proposed recruiting ISPs to enforce community standards by offering them "certain immunities from any liabilities that they might otherwise face." It is hardly clear whether that would fly, however. Any ISPs which go beyond offering some form of opt-in filtering are sure to end up in court; and any "immunities" the Congress thinks it can offer them for suppressing speech, however contemptible it may be, are likely to come to grief before the Supreme Court. Conspicuously absent from yesterday's proceedings were the Internet service providers themselves. Hatch noted that while several had been invited, all had "respectfully declined to appear." Hardly a surprise, as this was the mother of all no-win situations. No ISP wants to get involved in monitoring content, yet no ISP wants to appear tolerant of racism, ignorance and lunacy. Surely the best strategy is to step back and let Congress tie itself up in knots over this hopeless legal conundrum. ®

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