In 1998, the number of hate sites jumped by 60%, while extremists tested the legal limits of the internet with sites such as the Nuremburg Files.
In a year when the number of hate sites on the Internet jumped by almost 60%, white supremacists and other cyberspace extremists tested the legal limits of the new medium By early 1999, a number of hate site cases that could shape the future of racist propaganda on the Net were in court.
The legal battles shaping up — including a $107 million February judgment against several anti-abortion hardliners — are important ones. They involve the often fine line between espousing unpopular political doctrines and actually inciting criminal attacks on those seen as enemies.
For white supremacist and other race-based groups, the cases could prove to be pivotal to the future of a medium that has exploded in just four years.
And this medium has exploded.
Since the first hate site was put up by former Klansman Don Black in March 1995, Web hate sites have been added almost weekly. In just the last year, the Intelligence Project found that the number of sites went from 163 at the end of 1997 to 254 by the end of 1998.
This count is conservative. It does not include Holocaust denial sites, pages that are implicitly anti-Semitic but not explicitly so. It doesn't cover race scientists who claim to be able to prove that blacks are less intelligent than whites (see Race and 'Reason').
Pages put up by so-called "Patriot" groups, even though some may contain racist propaganda, are not included (they will be published in the forthcoming Spring 1999 Intelligence Report).
And it is limited to sites based in America, although many others worldwide are available here.
Targeting Middle-Class Youth
Aside from legal developments, several related trends were seen in 1998.
Increasingly, commercial service providers went after the proprietors of hate sites, kicking them off their computer servers. But the hate site proprietors had little trouble finding other electronic homes, simply moving to other servers with less restrictive policies or actually run by white supremacist co-religionists.
At the same time, there has been a marked upswing in the use of "chat rooms" for communications among extremists, with at least 20 now devoted to racist talk. These forums allow large numbers of people to "meet" or "converse" in real time.
One popular Klan chat room is organized so that smaller groups can meet privately in separate forums. This chat room's operators have the ability to lock out any participant's messages.
Many of those who run hate sites specifically target youngsters, reasoning that they need to reach the kind of bright, college-bound students who are mostly likely to have a computer in their bedroom.
White supremacist groups today are far less interested in picing up thuggish followers to physically assault their enemies than in developing future movement strategists, and for this the Net is an ideal recruiting tool.
There have been some efforts to combat this recruiting. The Anti-Defamation League last fall released new software designed to serve as a "hate filter," allowing parents to restrict their children's access to sites the ADL deems hateful. But as hate sites change servers and names, users will likely be able to regain access to them.
Legal limitations may prove to be different.
Just as a Klansman has an absolute right under the First Amendment to rally and express views judged hateful by most people, Net propagandists are protected in pushing their extremist views. Generally speaking, such rhetoric has been protected unless it calls for "imminent lawless action."
But there is a large gray area, yet to be litigated, over what constitutes an incitement on the Net.
'Terroristic Threats' and 'Cyber-Squatting'
An important case was heard in early 1998, when the nation's first E-mail threat case resulted in the conviction of Richard Machado.
Machado, a former student at the University of California-Irvine, had sent out an E-mail in 1996 to 59 mostly Asian students from a computer in the school's library. It said, in part: "I personally will make it my life's work to find and kill every one of you personally. OK? That's how determined I am."
Machado's first case ended in a mistrial, but he was convicted of committing a federal hate crime over the Internet in a second hearing. Prosecutors said his conviction was a key precedent, adding that many similar cases are arising. In particular, E-mail hate cases began to crop up last year on college campuses around the country.
Two other important cases were also being litigated.
In Pennsylvania, state officials filed suit last October against the Alpha HQ site, charging that it published "terroristic threats" against two women who worked at the state's fair housing and human relations office.
The site labeled the women "race traitors" and said that such traitors "will be hung from the neck from the nearest lamp post or tree." It carried a doctored photo showing their workplace blowing up.
Pennsylvania authorities quickly won a civil injunction banning publication of the doctored photo and prohibiting the group's Internet service provider from giving computer support to the site. Alpha subsequently shut down its site, or at least temporarily.
Alpha is a huge site run by Ryan Wilson, but technical support has been provided by Don Black, who runs his own "Stormfront" site and has come to be seen as the godfather of Net hate. Black calls the Pennsylvania suit an attack on the First Amendment.
A civil trial in the lawsuit is expected this year.
In a related development, newspapers in Chicago and St. Louis obtained temporary restraining orders last fall after Web addresses that sounded like they belonged to the newspapers were put up by Stormfront administrator Ed Marlow.
Using addresses such as philadelphiainquirer.com, Marlow's new pages sent visitors directly to the Stormfront page — a shock to most users, who expected to get the official page of the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper.
Similar tactics were used on at least 13 newspapers, provoking the federal suit for alleged copyright infringement. Almost immediately after Marlow's "cyber-squatting" was noticed, he gave up the Web addresses. The case has not yet been set for trial.
'The Nuremburg Files'
In the most important case yet, Planned Parenthood and several doctors who provide abortions won a $107 million judgment in February in a federal civil suit filed against 14 of the nation's most hard-line anti-abortion activists and groups. A key allegation of the suit, brought under the federal racketeering statute and the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, was that a Web site listing personal information about 225 doctors and others constitutes a direct threat.
After the verdict, several legal experts predicted that the judgment would not survive appeal.
"It's tempting but very dangerous to permit longstanding First Amendment standards to be compromised in order to deal with this outrageous form of expression," Robert O'Neil of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression told USA Today after the verdict. "But if we do, it will come back to haunt us."
A visitor logging on to the Christian Gallery site is quickly met with a vision of mangled pieces of fetus dripping blood. On one page, the site's creator, Neal Horsley, writes that his home state of Georgia should secede from the United States, using nuclear weapons if need be.
With a few clicks of the mouse, the visitor will find "The Nuremburg Files" — a list of "baby butchers" and their "accomplices" who Horsley says should one day stand trial for the murder of children.
The names of doctors wounded by anti-abortion extremists are grayed out. Those who have been killed have lines drawn through their names. The others have information such as their workplaces and their children's names and schools detailed on the site.
The site does not specifically advocate killing doctors, although it is linked to others that do argue for so-called "justifiable homicide." In one of them, convicted murder Paul Hill speaks of "the joy I felt after shooting the abortionist, and still feel today."
Therein lies the crux of the matter. Is the site merely providing publicly available information while espousing a particular political viewpoint? Or is it, as the plaintiffs in the FACE suit successfully contended, a bona fide threat?
'These People Planned to Kill Me'
Early on in the case, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones turned down the defendants' motion to dismiss the case on grounds of First Amendment protection.
He quoted an appeals court ruling that "alleged threats should be considered in light of their entire factual context, including the surrounding events and the reaction of the listeners."
In opening statements, defense attorneys denied any incitement. "This is a case about the threat to kill or injure, which is simply not there," Chris Ferrara told jurors in mid-January. "Opinions? Yes, sometimes harsh. But no violence."
Rodney Smolla, a First Amendment law expert at the University of Richmond, told The Atlanta Constitution, "you have to ask what is the ideological purpose [for the list and accompanying data]. It seems that the information adds little ... to the political debate but does provide very practical advice for someone who wants to commit murder."
The results of all these cases, and particularly appeals of the Planned Parenthood suit, may clarify when and whether actionable "threats" are being made — at a time when violent talk is proliferating on Web sites, in Web chat rooms and on Web E-mails.
But whether they are illegal or not, there is no question how they make many of their targets feel.
"I felt like a hunted animal, that I would be shot at any time," Dr. Warren Hern of Colorado told the jury. "I felt that these people planned to kill me."