Disturbing Internet sites will test tolerance of free expression

Friday, January 15, 1999

So how much free expression can we stomach?

Just how tolerant will Americans be of dark and disturbing viewpoints
when they can freely flow into all of our homes via the Internet?

The question is a timely one. A jury in Portland, Ore., recently awarded
$107 million in a civil suit filed against anti-abortion activists who
posted the Nuremberg Files Web site. The site listed the names of
doctors who perform abortions and crossed out the names of murdered
doctors. At issue was whether the site was an exercise in political
advocacy or part of a conspiracy against the doctors.

There was a time when it was fairly easy to ignore so-called fringe
opinions. Certainly there were people out there with troubling views,
but they were easily ignored. You didn’t know what the guy sitting next
to you on the plane was thinking, and you didn’t want to know.

The Web has changed all of that. Now anyone with an opinion, political
philosophy or personal obsession can showcase it on the Web, anonymously
and in total freedom.

The anti-abortion site is chilling. Hate speech sites are disturbing.
But brace yourself: Even uglier sites are on the way.

There always will be some who push the envelope of free expression.
Anything you can imagine can — and will — be posted to the Internet. A
quick survey of the alt.sex news groups quickly illustrates that.

We’ll see plenty of news stories in coming years about shocking Web
sites. And when the content is truly abhorrent, many will say ‘enough’s
enough.’ .

And that’s when we will find our commitment to the First Amendment truly
tested. There will be always some who will try to ‘draw the line.’ In
the short run, that’s done with legislation. In the longer run, it’s
done by courts. In the long term, it can be done only by changing the

When faced with Web sites that assault our most deeply held beliefs,
will we remember the value of free speech? At issue in the anti-abortion
site case was whether the content constituted more than free expression.
Did the site’s content incite others to violence, which is a criminal

The challenge is to ensure that expression itself is not punished. Will
those who applaud the ‘marketplace of ideas’ stand fast when the ideas
grow more violent and offensive?

Time will tell. The Internet provides us with the most immediate,
unfettered and uninhibited exercise of free speech in history. A truly
free people can stay on this path of progress even if we don’t always
enjoy the view.