Freedom of Speech is cherished - I understand that. But...has the internet provided a forum for speech that shouldn't be free? Is there a point where government must draw the line?
TO THE ORIGINAL SOURCE
'Democracy gone wild'
Hate speech infests online versions of local daily newspapers
For the person behind the moniker “Viking Knight,” the Internet is a virtual playground for hate.
“Mexican’ts are a b…stard race and will come to nothing in the end. WHITE POWER FOREVER,” Viking Knight wrote in response to the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old boy. “Somebody saved the LAPD the trouble of icing this ‘vato.’ … He is one less Mexie on the planet, not that it counts for much.”
On the beating of an Orthodox Jew by skinheads in North Hollywood: “We should offer a reward to the guy who off’d this Christ-killer. … Jew$ are a disease.”
On the death of an Armenian girl who was denied a liver transplant by her health insurance company: “God got rid of one the Turks missed. Too bad He doesn’t get rid of all of them.”
A person might expect to find these and other vile comments by Viking Knight — including slurs against gays and Asians — posted on a white supremacist or neo-Nazi Web site.
But the banner on the top of the page belongs to the Daily News of Los Angeles, and in other cases to its MediaNews Group sister paper, the Pasadena Star-News.
Like dozens of other people who post comments through these and other newspaper Web sites, Viking Knight can remain as anonymous as he or she wishes to be. And due to the anonymity and instant access to an audience that poorly monitored newspaper and social networking sites provide, Internet hate speech is a growing national phenomenon.
“It’s democracy gone wild,” said Deborah Lauter, director of the national civil rights division of the Anti-Defamation League. She’s hoping the Daily News and the Star-News will remove racist diatribes from the Web and be more vigilant about hate speech in the future.
“Unfortunately, we believe now that many more papers are offering this kind of [comment] service we are going to see an increase in that kind of hate rhetoric. While it is protected speech, we believe it is incumbent on a newspaper or a social networking site to step up and be a responsible corporation, and be more active in moderating [its Web site] and taking down what is clearly hate speech,” said Lauter. “Once they decide to create that forum, then they have to act responsibly and monitor it.”
The Daily News and Star-News Web sites allow any reader to post his or her views through a service called Topix, which allows discussion forums to be built around news articles and other subjects.
“It is impossible for any paper our size to read all the comments every day, so this is an issue often discussed [among the 57 MediaNews Group daily newspapers, many of which use Topix],” said Ryan Garfat, online editor of the Daily News.
Garfat said the paper typically relies on Web users to flag hate speech and other abusive posts through Topix, which forwards those complaints to editors. He said Tuesday that he plans to remove hate speech identified by this newspaper, but is already dealing with dozens of reader complaints about other posts — some of which aren’t hate speech at all.
Garfat also said that there were no plans to change how the Web site is monitored.
“The unfortunate effects of having an open forum are that these things are going to happen, and we feel they reflect poorly on the identity of the newspaper. But if we take the alternate route of eliminating comments, then I think we are not fulfilling our goal of allowing legitimate discussion within our community and would be disserving our community by doing that.”
The Star-News has had far fewer problems with online hate speech than the Daily News — the source of the three comments quoted above — and removed posts that contained hate speech following conversations with the Pasadena Weekly.
“Our policy for the comments is that we do not moderate or edit the comments before they’re posted online. However, we will remove comments that are deemed to be offensive or inappropriate,” said San Gabriel Valley Newspaper Group Senior Editor Frank Pine, who supervises the Star-News, Whittier Daily News and San Gabriel Valley Tribune.
Pine said he was not aware of Viking Knight’s hateful posts until hearing from this newspaper, and that the only complaints about comments made over the Internet had been from sources in news stories who felt they were being characterized unfairly.
Although Topix terms of service prohibit content that is “hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable,” it also warns that users “may be exposed to content that is offensive, indecent or objectionable.”
Topix is a Palo Alto-based limited liability corporation owned largely by publishing giants the Gannett Co., The McClatchy Co. and the Tribune Co., according to its Web site. The Web site for the Los Angeles Times does not use Topix, and reader comments appear to be monitored to exclude hate speech.
At the Star-News site, Viking Knight makes it clear in one anti-affirmative action rant that he’s no fan of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, and in a separate post appears to advocate that Obama be assassinated.
“Robert Kennedy sold our courageous men in uniform out when he became a peacenik. He sold White people out when he started kissing up to the likes of Chavez, Dr. King, the mestizo farmworkers, etc. Sirhan may not be a prize, but he was just what America needed, just when we needed him,” wrote Viking Knight in response to a column by Star-News Public Editor Larry Wilson about Kennedy’s Pasadena-bred assassin. “As we approach the November elections, we could use a man like Sirhan again.”
“That post is clearly over the line,” Pine said Monday. On Tuesday it had been removed from the site, along with other posts disparaging Latino youth.
“As shocking as these kinds of things are, they are increasingly common on perfectly mainstream Web sites. Usually the paper will step in and scrub their sites of this kind of material, because if they didn’t they would become absolute nesting grounds for white supremacists. These guys are looking for a place to safely transmit their ideology and bring more people into the movement,” said Mark Potok, editor of Intelligence Report, a magazine that monitors hate groups and is produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Potok said that he’s been forced to keep a close eye on his magazine’s blog (www.splcenter.org/blog) to prevent hateful comments from being posted. People have even tried to post racially motivated threats to assassinate Obama, which he has reported to the Department of Homeland Security.
In the United States, constitutional free speech protections typically prevent legal action on hate speech unless someone is threatening or urging others to physically harm a person or racial group, said Potok, who recently testified before the Helsinki Commission (also known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe) about threats posed by Internet hate speech.
Potok was testifying not only as an expert, but also as a victim: A neo-Nazi group once identified him on a Web site as an enemy of their cause and posted his home address. But because the group did not specifically order its readers to do Potok harm, they didn’t break the law.
In Europe and most other Western nations, hate speech — in Germany, denying or trivializing the Holocaust — can be prosecuted as a crime. As a result, said Potok, the majority of foreign-language white supremacist Web sites are hosted through computer servers in the United States.
Viking Knight also took aim through the Star-News at the social services organization El Centro de Acción Social, which he or she wrote on May 31 “is nothing but a Reconquista terrorist organization dedicated to the destruction of America.”
The next day, in response to another reader’s concern about the achievement levels of some students receiving scholarships from the organization, Viking Knight wrote: “They’re Mexican’ts, What did you expect? Their grades suck because in most high schools, you can’t major in Lowriding 101.”
El Centro Executive Director Randy Jurado Ertll said he thinks the Star-News should prevent racist comments like these — which were pulled from the site after Pine spoke with the Weekly — from reaching readers.
“Responsibility comes with freedom of expression,” said Ertll. “I was just disgusted by this. We need to be vigilant of people who use hate language. Just as we denounce hate crimes, we have to denounce hate language. Words impact people’s actions and influence others to promote more hate.”
But it doesn’t end there. One conversation chain from the Daily News involving Viking Knight and others was so rife with prejudice against a Latino teen shot to death at a party — “like all the rest of the scum too hell he went too face satan,” wrote catwomomen4u69 — that someone claiming to be the victim’s ex-girlfriend was actually pleading with people to stop.
“Certainly we could do a better job of moderating comments,” said Garfat, who acknowledged that recent staffing cuts have affected the paper’s ability to monitor the Web site. “But, I still maintain the need to allow people to have conversations supersedes the vile comments that sometimes permeate our boards. We work with what we’ve got.”
In another conversation that devolved into slurs against “Mexicans and blacks,” someone wrote: “It’s time for a good old fashion clan meeting … come on my arean [sic] brothers … lets get out our rebel flags and let the lynching begin.”
Such vitriol targeting Latinos in general or people perceived to be illegal aliens is, sadly, “very much par for the course,” in terms of hate speech to be found on mainstream Web sites, said Potok.
“We’re in a whole new age,” said the ADL’s Lauter. “The anonymity of the Internet provides a forum so the people who wouldn’t have the proclivity to say it in public can hide behind screens. We used to say the Klan hid behind their white hoods; these [people] hide behind their screens.”
And in many ways, newspapers are behind the times in figuring out how to respond.
“There’s a larger issue in this story,” said Pine, “that is, to what degree should newspaper Web sites allow people to comment anonymously. It’s something that warrants further scrutiny. Certainly it’s a conversation we’ve been having in the newsroom and will continue to have.”
Pine and Garfat said they are reluctant to restrict comments until they are screened or increase registration requirements, as that would hinder access to the service. “We want to facilitate the free exchange of ideas and have people feeling comfortable speaking their minds, but on the other hand you don’t want people to hide behind anonymity and use it to promote hatred and say things that have no place in civilized public discourse,” he said.
That such vicious comments sat for more than a week on the Web sites of local daily newspapers angers Nat Nehdar, a friend of the Pasadena Human Relations Commission and its former chair, who dedicates much of his time to activities combating prejudice, hate and violence.
“I feel strongly that newspapers should more carefully monitor their Web sites and eliminate such trash, which in some ways can reflect on the newspaper itself. If you allow it you are not condemning it, so it seems like you are condoning this type of hate speech,” he said.