We must find room for hate speech, too

August 04, 1998|By Charles Levendosky

SEX AND lurking sexual predators aren't the only worries people have about the Internet. Web sites that blaze with hate and bigotry have also come under fire recently. Unfortunately, there are those who would hack a hunk out of the First Amendment to ban such sites.

Hate speech on the Internet has grown rapidly -- through Web sites, e-mail, bulletin boards and chat rooms, according to a study published by the Anti-Defamation League last year. The ADL monitors the Internet looking for anti-Semitic speech propagated by neo-Nazi, white supremacist groups. In the study, "High-Tech Hate: Extremist Use of the Internet," the ADL notes that hate Web sites more than doubled from 1996 to 1997.

Hate speech can be loosely defined as speech that reviles or ridicules a person or group of people based upon their race, creed, sexual orientation, religion, disability, economic condition or national origin.

A number of universities, more sensitive to people's feelings than the significance of the First Amendment, have written speech regulations to punish students who post hate messages on the World Wide Web. Some universities have put blocking technology on their computers that have Internet access to filter out Web sites that advocate prejudice and bigotry.

There are those who push for a rating system for every Web page, with stiff fines for those deemed inappropriate.

The company that makes the software filter called Cyber Patrol made a decision months ago to block out the American Family Association's Web site because it contains prejudicial statements against homosexuality.

The right-wing American Family Association, ironically, has pushed parents, schools and libraries to use Internet filters like Cyber Patrol.

A number of academics argue that hate speech should not be protected by the First Amendment. Fortunately, their arguments have not been persuasive against our long and honored tradition of free speech.

While we may despise the comments made on some of these hate-filled Web sites, it is difficult to argue they are not espousing a political position. Often one man's hate speech is another man's political statement. And political commentary has -- and should have -- the highest First Amendment protection.

A democratic outlet

As the U.S. Supreme Court noted in finding the Communications Decency Act unconstitutional last year, anyone with access to the Internet can be a pamphleteer sending e-mail messages to thousands of recipients with one push of a button or posting Web sites that are eventually seen by hundreds of thousands. It is the most democratic communication media yet devised.

The leading edge of any social or political movement cuts a path to recognition by using radical, sometimes outrageous rhetoric. The rhetoric defines or redefines the landscape in terms that suit a particular movement. It shakes up the prevailing state of affairs. This has been true in this nation from the time of our own revolution to gain independence from Great Britain to the present.

Certainly, the British crown could have considered the Declaration of Independence a form of hate speech.

The Industrial Workers of the World, the labor movement, the socialist movement, anti-war movements, the Black Power movement, poverty marches, veteran's marches, the temperance crusade, women's liberation movement, the anti-abortion movement -- all used inflammatory rhetoric like a blowtorch to burn a hole in the status quo. To demand that people take sides. And see the world differently.

If hate speech were prohibited, sociopolitical movements could be crushed before they even started. The current cliche about "civility" in debate may be fine when we all agree to basic premises and we're all well fed and treated equally.

We can afford to be polite to one another and chummy. But civility does not serve the downtrodden, the forgotten, the invisible, the persecuted, the hungry and homeless. Civility in pursuit of justice plays to the power structure's selective deafness. To be effective, the voice must be raised, the tone sharpened, the language at a pitch that slices the air.

Americans know this at heart -- we were born in a revolution.

Feeling powerless

Hate speech is not the cause of bigotry, but arises out of it and a sense of political and social powerlessness. Allowing those who feel powerless to speak -- no matter how vehement the language -- salves the speaker. Venting frustration, anger and hurt is an important use of language. It may actually short circuit an inclination for physical violence.

The black playwright Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) had one of his characters in "Dutchman," his 1960s play about a black rebellion, say that for every poem he wrote, there was one less white man he killed.

Suppressing speech, even hateful speech and perhaps especially hateful speech, would inevitably lead to violence.

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