Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearing on Internet hate

Wednesday, September 15, 1999

“We need to examine what can be done about hate on the Internet, within the constraints imposed by the First Amendment,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday on hate and the Internet.

Several of the panelists told the committee that the Internet poses special problems for those committed to combating hate speech and hate crimes. Michael Gennaco, an assistant U.S. attorney in California, told the committee that “the Internet has created a whole new class of criminals.”

“The Internet offers a medium of communication where a skilled user can spew out hate-laced threats to countless victims throughout the country with little effort,” said Gennaco.

Other panelists echoed those sentiments. “In 1999, the Internet can serve as a terrorism tutor,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish anti-hate group.

Joseph T. Roy Sr. of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-hate, watchdog group, testified to the extraordinary growth of Web sites on the Internet that spew hate. Roy also said that the Internet allows white supremacists and other hate groups the opportunity to present their messages in an alluring fashion and with “unprecedented access.”

Gennaco, who represented the government in the first prosecution ever under a federal hate-crime law involving threats transmitted over the Internet, acknowledged that the First Amendment protects much “despicable” speech.

Other panelists emphasized that the push to combat hate on the Internet must be tempered by our nation’s tolerance of all kinds of speech and by the First Amendment.

“First, we want the Internet to thrive; and we believe that the Internet, by its nature, cannot thrive in a climate of censorship or heavy-handed government regulation,” said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

Henderson noted that the First Amendment was crucial to the success of the civil rights movement, a time “when the message of the civil rights movement was seen as subversive or offensive.”

“There was a time when our leaders invoked the constitutional principle of free speech to confront threats of censorship and repression,” he said. “Now that we are in the mainstream, and the bigots are on the fringes, we will not abandon the principles and protections that brought us to where we are today.”

Several panelists testified that hate-crimes legislation must distinguish between hate speech and hate crimes based on harmful conduct. “Until a hate-monger crosses the line from speech to action, he is cloaked in the protection of the federal Constitution,” Henderson said.

Leahy said he recognized this distinction in his support of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a bill that would increase penalties for those who commit crimes and for those who recruit juveniles to commit such crimes. “The Hate Crimes Prevention Act is a tool for combating acts of violence and threats of violence motivated by hatred and bigotry,” he said. “The Constitution does not permit Congress to prohibit the expression of an idea because it is harmful.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch, chairman of the committee, agreed that First Amendment considerations play a significant role when determining the constitutionality of anti-hate regulations. “And with the First Amendment as our country’s first premise, we know that any solutions we endorse must recognize that the surest way to defeat the message of hate is to hold it under the harsh light of public scrutiny.”

Leahy added that “when it comes to hate on the Internet, the problem is the message, not the medium.”