“One man’s hate speech is another man’s political statement.” --Charles Levendosky, Liberal Opinion Weekly, August 17, 1998
Benjamin Smith, a twenty-one-year-old member of the racist group World Church of the Creator, went on a hate-filled, three-day shooting rampage over the Fourth of July weekend in 1999 in which he killed two and wounded nine—all minorities. He began the weekend by shooting at a group of Jews who were leaving their synagogue in Chicago, Illinois, wounding six of them. An hour later, he was driving down a residential street in Skokie, where Ricky Byrdsong, a black former basketball coach at Northwestern University in Evanston, was jogging with two of his children. Smith shot and killed Byrdsong, forty-three, with seven bullets to the back. The next day, Smith shot at a group of Asians near the University of Illinois. On the last day of his shooting spree, Smith killed Won-Joon Yoon, a twenty-six-year-old Korean-American as he left church in Bloomington. Smith then stole a van and led police on a chase before killing himself with a gunshot to his head.
Many people argue that the racist speech of the World Church of the Creator and other hate groups—especially on the Internet—encourages white supremacists like Smith to act on their beliefs and commit hate crimes. In fact, Sherialynn Byrdsong believes the presence of hate groups on the Internet is directly responsible for her husband’s murder. The Internet has become a popular tool for racist groups to promote their message of white supremacy and to recruit new members. The number of hate sites on the Internet has grown from one in 1995 to over twenty-eight hundred in 2000, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an organization that monitors anti-Semitism and hate crimes. Children and teens are especially attracted to Internet hate sites because they can satisfy their curiosity about white supremacy in private and meet others online who share their racist views. Some hate groups have incorporated games and graphics into their web pages designed to specifically appeal to younger viewers.
Because hate can be dangerous, as Smith’s victims and their families are well aware, and because children and teens are attracted to hate groups’ websites, some people, including Sherialynn Byrdsong, want to ban hate sites on the Internet. Critics believe online hate is much more powerful than other kinds of racist propaganda because it is available and easily accessible twenty-four hours a day. According to Sherialynn Byrdsong,
Ben Smith was probably greatly influenced by things that he heard and saw over the Internet, because there seems to be a lot of sites where people can visit to learn about hate and hate groups, white supremacist movements, and philosophies. I believe he became so brainwashed . . . that what he was learning overpowered any kind of human esteem for the lives of people who were different from himself.
Those who support censorship of online hate know that the Constitution permits censorship of some speech. The Court has ruled that obscenity and “fighting words” are two exceptions to the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. Byrdsong argues that an exception should be made for hate speech as well: “I doubt seriously if the writers of our Constitution and Bill of Rights intended that freedom of speech could be a way that people can spread their hate philosophy. I don’t think that free speech means hate speech.”
Others disagree, however, contending that the right to free speech must include hate speech. Eric Zorn, a columnist with the Chicago Tribune, argues, “The concept of freedom of speech means nothing—less than nothing—if it doesn’t extend to the speech of those with whom you have profound disagreements. . . . They’re the ones who need it.”
Hate groups, like many of the political and social protesters of the second half of the twentieth century, depend on being provocative and inflammatory simply to get people’s attention. The protests over the Vietnam War, civil rights, women’s rights, and abortion were very unpopular at their inception (and some continue to be). Critics of censorship claim that once restrictions are placed on hate speech, they may then be placed on other unpopular forms of speech. According to Charles Levendosky, a noted commentator on First Amendment issues, “socio-political movements could be crushed before they even started.” Therefore, he asserts, hate speech, despite how despicable it may be, should not be censored. “One man’s hate speech is another man’s political statement. And political commentary has—and should have—the highest First Amendment protection.”
Besides being politically unfeasible, some critics maintain that trying to censor hate speech on the Internet would actually benefit the hate groups. Syndicated columnist Scott Rosenberg explains how such a plan would backfire against the censors:
Shutting down Web sites that publish idiotic racist and anti- Semitic ideas might give people a sense of having struck a blow for sanity. But it’s not very practical. Close down one Web site and another five spring up. And it tends to backfire, giving racists a chance to pose as martyrs in the cause of free speech.
Rosenberg also points out that people will not become converts to white supremacy simply by being exposed to hate speech. In the “marketplace of ideas,” first proposed by philosopher John Stuart Mill, ideas—both good and bad— are set out before the public, who can then “vigorously and earnestly” debate them. Stuart and his followers contend that when ideas are examined in a free and open forum—one without censorship—the good ideas (such as tolerance) survive, while the bad ideas (such as racism and white supremacy) disappear.
The controversy over hate speech—whether spoken, written, or transmitted through cyberspace—is similar to other debates about censorship. Pornography and its accessibility online, violent and sexually explicit movies and music, offensive art—all have their critics who argue for censorship.
These topics and others are some of the issues discussed in Censorship: Opposing Viewpoints, which contains the following chapters: Should the Right to Free Speech Be Restricted? Should Pornography Be Censored? Should Schools and Libraries Practice Censorship? Should the Arts and Entertainment Industries Be Censored? As long as people find some speech and art offensive, the question will remain whether some speech should be exempt from the protection guaranteed by the First Amendment.