In 1995, Gary "Gerhard" Lauck was arrested in Denmark for sending neo-Nazi propaganda into Germany.
Although Lauck had been for years the leading exporter of German-language hate material to Germany from his home in Lincoln, Neb., he had escaped prosecution up to then by remaining within the safe confines of the United States, with its broad First Amendment protections.
His mistake was traveling to another country where his publishing activities — illegal under the laws of many European countries — were not similarly immune.
The ironic thing about the case was that Lauck's mistake came at a time when his hate exporting business was losing its viability. With the explosion of hate sites on the Internet, Germans with an appetite for neo-Nazi propaganda no longer needed Lauck to smuggle them reading material. They could satisfy themselves by clicking a mouse.
Now, after a four-year stint in a German prison, Lauck is proving that he has learned his lesson — but not the one that German authorities had hoped. From his Nebraska home, the "Farm Belt Führer" is again building a hate publishing empire aimed largely at the German market.
But in a sign of how times have changed, Lauck is taking full advantage of the latest technology. And once again, the First Amendment is shielding his activities from prosecution.
Today, Lauck operates a neo-Nazi Internet site that is primarily written in German and intended for German readers. More importantly, he operates a Web-hosting company — zensurfrei.com, meaning "censorship-free" — that has actively targeted European clients, mostly Germans, since he set it up in 2001.
"Political repression is increasing in Europe!" his page warns. "European webmasters can reduce their risk by moving their website to the USA!" Lauck's firm promises secrecy, and its staff can converse fluently with clients in German. To house one Web site on Lauck's server runs $240 a year.
Lauck is not alone. A very large number of European hate sites are housed on American computer servers to avoid speech laws in their own countries.
In addition to Lauck's service, a site called odinsrage.com, which began life as yoderanium.com in 1998 but changed its name in 2001, offers free Web hosting to a number of European hate sites.
Another site, first-amendment-hosting.com, has hosted hate sites including the infamous godhatesfags.com, a domestic site, and others that are foreign. The total number of foreign sites housed on American servers isn't known, but, according to Ulrich Dovermann of Germany's Federal Agency for Civil Education, it includes at least 500 German-language hate sites.
In an interview, Lauck said he hosts about 60 Web sites, 24 of them German-language sites (just three, he figures, are illegal under German law). Although many Europeans prefer free services like those offered by odinsrage.com, Lauck says he attracts a more serious clientele that is willing to pay a small premium for added bandwidth and other features.
Lauck's foray into Web hosting, however, was as much a business decision as it was a political one. By purchasing server space in bulk, he can defray the cost of operating his own neo-Nazi site and assist other "political dissidents" in the process.
It is no accident that the United States hosts so many foreign-language hate sites; its Constitution offers expansive protections for free expression. The Supreme Court has ruled that the government, in limited circumstances, may regulate or punish expression based on the type of speech or the manner by which the speech is communicated.
But over the past two decades, the high court has firmly established that non-threatening offensive expression like hate speech or flag desecration in public forums constitutes protected speech that cannot be punished on the basis of objectionable content. R.A.V. v. St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377 (1992); Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989).
In 1997, the Supreme Court dealt censorship advocates an additional blow when it held the Internet to be a public forum in a case relating to indecent material. The ruling meant that otherwise protected expression, such as hate speech, would not lose its protection merely because it was disseminated on the Internet. Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844 (1997).
The laws are very different in most European countries, as well as in Canada. The result is a golden business opportunity for people like Lauck.
Another factor driving business into the Nebraskan's hands is the frequent efforts by anti-racist activists to pressure Internet service providers to comply with their own "no-hate" policies by kicking racist sites off their servers. For Lauck, such problems for his co-religionists are a financial godsend.
But there is something that still frightens Gary Lauck — the prospect of international travel. "I'd think twice about going to Germany or any other European nation," he said. "I take it for granted that if the Germans knew I was coming, I would be arrested."
Attorney Brian Levin is an associate professor of criminal justice at California State University, San Bernardino, where he is director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism.