P.S. I Hate You

Her great-grandparents died in the Holocaust. But Sara Salzman knows that anti-Semitism lives on -- on the Web.

Salzman has contacted the Jewish Federation, the Anti-Defamation League and an organization called Women Halting On-Line Abuse. None have been of any help. "They all said that what's happening is terrible," Salzman says. But just as law-enforcement officials did, they said they couldn't help because no overt threats had been made. The latter group, she adds, advised her to stop posting to alt.revisionism and to change her name and move. She has also contacted private attorneys in Colorado, but none have committed to helping her.

"At the time she contacted us, I characterized what was happening to her as a nuisance, but it was nothing rising to the level of a crime," says Evan Zuckerman, assistant director of the Denver office of the Anti-Defamation League. "Internet law is in an evolving stage. Now, just about anything can pass as protected speech."

But Salzman counters that her situation is no longer just about free speech. "Believe me, I am 100 percent against censoring on the Internet. I'd rather have these people in the light, because if you turn off the light, they'll crawl right back under the refrigerator with all the other cockroaches, and no one will know what they're up to," Salzman says. "But you can't yell fire in a crowded room, and you can't call me a dog-fucker and get away with it. I am absolutely convinced that going away will not stop this. There have been times when I've stopped contributing to alt.revisionism for a week and [the harassment] hasn't stopped. I'm not the only person out there who has had this happen. Somebody has got to set a precedent and say that this can't happen, and I guess I've sort of decided it's going to be me."

Sara Salzman has seen the ugly side of the Internet.
Anthony Camera
Sara Salzman has seen the ugly side of the Internet.

In fact, Salzman has had it pretty easy compared to Bonnie Jouhari, a former housing advocate in Reading, Pennsylvania, who for two years was harassed and threatened by white supremacists.

Jouhari's problems began when she noticed that the Ku Klux Klan, which was very active in suburban Berks County, was intimidating minorities into remaining inside Reading, despite the fact that better and more affordable housing was located outside the city limits. Jouhari formed the Berks County Hate Crimes Task Force and encouraged the police to punish hate crimes. In response, white supremacists embarked on a mission to terrorize Jouhari and her teenage daughter. One uploaded photos of Jouhari onto his Web site and wrote that she should be "hung from the neck" for being a "race traitor." Roy Frankhouser, a former grand dragon of the Pennsylvania KKK, promoted the site on his cable TV show.

The intimidation escalated, and when it became clear that local authorities weren't going to help, Jouhari and her daughter packed what they could fit into her car and fled to Seattle. But her problems followed her. Her terrorizers found her new phone number and started calling her. She moved three times, but they always managed to find her new number. One day in November 1999, Jouhari returned home to find a bullet lodged in her kitchen cabinet; a few weeks later, her daughter came home from school and found that someone had broken into their apartment and rifled their belongings. Finally, Jouhari returned to the East Coast, where she found a sympathetic ear in U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo. He told Jouhari that he could investigate a civil charge that she was denied fair housing as a result of the threats. HUD also pressured Frankhouser to issue an apology to Jouhari at a press conference on May 11 and on his cable television show a week later.

Stopping the kind of hate speech Salzman and Jouhari have encountered isn't easy. Congress tried to enact a law called the Communications Decency Act in 1997, which would have punished the transmission of "indecent" materials over the Internet, but the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was overly broad.

In a speech before the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights earlier this year, Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center described the situation this way: "In short, the Internet received the court's strongest free speech protections...Under American case law, it is perfectly permissible to denigrate racial minorities or even advocate the violent overthrow of the government some time in the indefinite future or in general terms. Only when advocacy amounts to 'incitement to imminent lawless action' can it be punished. And the definition of incitement is extremely narrow. Under American law, it is perfectly legal to advocate the political idea that 'all police should be killed.' On the other hand, it probably would amount to criminal incitement to tell an excited individual to 'go kill that police officer over there.'"

Legal precedent has been set, however, demonstrating that there are limits, even in a virtual world. One case a couple of years ago got a lot of attention. Twelve abortion opponents were sued by Planned Parenthood after they created a Web site called "The Nuremberg Files"; on it, they posted a list of 225 abortion doctors and included many of their home telephone numbers, addresses, automobile descriptions and license plate numbers. Whenever an abortion doctor was killed (seven have been murdered in the U.S. in the last seven years), his name was crossed off the list. If a doctor was wounded, his name was shaded in gray. The federal court judge who heard the case said that the Web site and some "Wanted" posters printed by the twelve defendants constituted "blatant and illegal communication of true threats to kill." In February 1999, a jury awarded the plaintiffs a $107.9 million judgment.

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