When Web words threaten

Internet poses new problems for determining when speech is protected

When Bonnie Jouhari clicked on the Web site of a group called Alpha HQ, she was frightened for her life.

There, blinking on a screen for millions to see, was a vitriolic message of hate, filled with words such as "traitor" and threats to hang the antihate activist "from the nearest tree." Next to those words stood a photograph of Ms. Jouhari herself, and an image of her office bursting into flames.

"The thought of this circulating all over the world with people wanting to do me harm made me feel terrible," says Jouhari, who was a member of the Reading-Berks Human Relations Council in Reading, Pa. "This clearly isn't a First Amendment issue, it's terrorist threats and an attempt to provoke other people to do harm."

The Pennsylvania attorney general's office agreed, shutting down the white-supremacist Web site last month.

More and more communities, from Pennsylvania to California, are having to decide how to deal with hateful speech broadcast over a medium that has no boundaries. As these sites proliferate, experts say, the struggle to weigh free speech on the Internet against personal safety could become one of the most important areas of law in the years ahead.

"I think the free-speech battles of the 21st century will be fought in cyberspace," says Barry Steinhardt, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "Groups with limited resources are now able to speak to audiences great and small. As those numbers rise, there will also be much more law-enforcement attention paid to unpopular political speakers."

Blocking bigotry

Some law-enforcement organizations are taking the offensive. Earlier this month, the US Justice Department was set to launch an investigation into Christian Gallery, an Internet site that publishes personal information about doctors who perform abortions. (In a section of the site called the Nuremberg Files, the name of Barnett Slepian - the Amherst, N.Y., doctor who was fatally shot at his home recently - is crossed out.)

Other groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, are producing software that they say will filter out hate-group sites or will steer Internet users to a site that can help them counteract hateful messages.

But the effort to define when a hate site crosses the threshold from protected free speech to a direct threat disseminated worldwide at the touch of a button remains the most difficult task.

"The Internet exacerbates a lot of the conflict the law has always had to deal with, determining when speech crosses the line into a form that the government can regulate and attempt to suppress," says David Sobel, general counsel for the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. "The test is whether or not there's an imminent threat of criminal activity."

New tool

While the Internet may make things more complicated, the messages that appear on it are not new. The Web hasn't supplanted leaflets, faxes, and other means of communication.

In fact, "if you're a committed ideologue doing horrendous things, the Internet isn't going to be the thing that inspires you; it's just going to be another tool," says Brian Levin, Stockton College criminal justice professor and director of that school's Center on Hate and Extremism.

Although there are hundreds of hate sites on the Internet, Mr. Levin says "quite a few of them have gone under, because the people who put them together couldn't afford the fees to maintain them."

Hate messages on the Internet have already spurred legal action. Last February, a California jury found Richard Machado guilty of violating the civil rights of more than 50 Asian students at the University of California, Irvine. Mr. Machado sent the students e-mail messages, signed "Asian Hater," that threatened to kill them if they didn't drop out of school.

At the time of that verdict, prosecuting attorney Michael Gennaco, an assistant US attorney, said "a line does have to be drawn in the world of cyberspace. If you cross that line and threaten people, you are going to be subject to criminal penalties."

According to Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher, Jouhari's case crossed that threshold. "These messages were meant to terrorize, harass and intimidate... It's outrageous, it's unacceptable, and it will not be tolerated in Pennsylvania," he says.

For Jouhari, however, too much damage had already been done.

Out of concern for her own welfare and the safety of her teenage daughter, Jouhari quit her job and is planning to move this month to another part of the country. "I'm angry," she says.

"I don't know why people weren't there to help me."

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