Issue #24, February 1996
In a front page article, the New York Times (1/10/96) reported that the Simon Wiesenthal Center has begun lobbying Internet access providers and universities requesting censorship of communications that "promote racism, anti-Semitism, mayhem and violence." While the intent of the Center is not to impose formal speech codes through legislation or public policy, its lobbying efforts illustrate the perceived urgency of the problem of hate speech on the web, and the risks of censorship.
As mass media consumers, few of us have been left unexposed to hateful propaganda brought to us through the television and radio. Hate speech is coming to characterize American party politics in the 1990s. From the Rush Limbaugh show to the Willie Horton ad campaign, to the 1992 Republican National Convention, "The Gay Agenda," and "The Clinton Chronicles," a deluge of materials has overwhelmed and desensitized many of us to low-grade varieties of hate speech.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center targeted the hard-core racist propaganda found on the Internet, a sample of which I shall review and critique below. It is Joe Bunkley's "First Banned WWW Page," which is not party-aligned, but political propaganda nontheless, especially working in conjunction with more benign forms of electronic mass communications. Importantly, it exists — or rather, is made into accessible propaganda — by virtue of public expenditure.
The Differentiation of the Public Sphere
In 1989, public technologists working for CERN ("Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire) created the World Wide Web. Meanwhile, the NCSA developed one of the first graphical web browsers, Mosaic. Mosaic is an easy-to-use cross-platform interface for navigating the most comprehensive switched data networks. These interdependent technologies are responsible for having provided tremendous new opportunities for wide access to public databases around the world. In this government-sponsored medium, they also created a formidable challenge to would-be censors and other enemies of free speech. The power and scope of Web publication has permitted free speech to have an instant and global impact. It has also made it nearly impossible to administratively segregate users' access to information contained in public directories, permitting free speech to wander freely as well.
The privatization of the Internet is beginning to change some of these characteristics. As free speech can carry certain political vulnerabilities, the transfer of legal responsibility from the federal government to the private data carriers and providers of Internet connectivity has been fraught with challenges to the free exercise of speech (not all of them direct threats to the First Amendment). U.S. legislators, foreign governments (Germany), organized religions and numerous private individuals have attempted to restrict speech published on the Web. Until challenges such as these are decided by US courts, there will be a chill on free speech. In the meantime, the commercialization of "Internet presence" and the advent of popular HTML-text editors has made it easier for consumers/browsers to become web creators and producers. This signifies the transition of consumers to producers within the new cybernetic mode of production.
With the rationalization of the Internet into economically and culturally productive zones comes the inevitability that the state is called upon to protect speech from unwarranted intrusions, protecting net speech in the same way that it has been called upon to protect written, performed, or broadcast speech. But the government is presently forcing the issue much quicker than the private sector has pushed it. State-sponsored attacks on free speech, such as the indecency provisions of the proposed 1996 Telecommunications Bill, generally come in the guise of legislation supporting public morality. The proposed telecom bill enjoins connectivity providers to practice private censorship or risk financial liability for the effects of private users' speech.
The telecom bill is representative of all the contradictions associated with the politics of persecution and prohibitionism spawned by the Christian Coalition, and affiliated entities enjoying political strength in the Republican Revolution. On the one hand the bill, like other "revolutionary" Republican legislation, postures as religious and moral correctness as it intervenes into previously untouched communications. On the other hand, it claims to reduce the government's role in the private sector and liberalize access to telecommunications resources. Between these mutually exclusive positions lies a vast field of future court decisions about prioritizing public morality over freedoms of privacy, speech, and assembly.
The Exon Amendment was the first item of the Christian Coalition's Contract With The American Family. The Communications Decency Act, sponsored by Senator James Exon (D-NE) and Senator Dan Coats (R-IN), called for jail time and heavy fines for "those who knowingly distribute obscene materials to minors." The Act was attached as an amendment to a telecommunications reform and passed the Senate 84 to 16. A slightly watered-down version is in conference as this essay goes to press.
Judging from the heavy volume of Internet chain letters circulating during the period of hottest debate concerning the Exon rider, social movements are organizing in response to these incursions. Formal capstones to these underground political movements are beginning to solidify. In the US, online civil libertarians such as the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are acting to preserve (or defend against regulatory attack) the traditionally unencumbered character of online communications against moralistic conservatives in both parties. The appearance of Internet free speech advocacy suggests that the technocapitalism organizing the Internet is enfolding a vast new community of international communicators who are white-hot about pursuing discourses of free speech and censorship.
An online populism that is very protective of the hitherto unregulated messaging in the digital domain still permeates the communicative culture of the Internet. If changes in the online communicative culture occur alongside structural changes in the ownership and liabilities of communications networks, and if the motivation of the online populists is to meet the challenges of the Decency Act, then this populism will have to give way to hard-nosed pragmatism and strategic organizational planning for political and legal defenses of free speech. Steven Russell, an attorney for the ACLU in San Antonio, Texas is already preparing a sufficiently "indecent" piece for publication on the Internet to spark a legal battle over the constitutionality of the Decency Act.
In recognition of a changing communicative culture and the reorganization of the economy into a more communicatively efficient system, it is essential to defend freedom of expression in its widest formal sense. The slogan for this position is simple: In telecommunications as in print, there must be no prior restraint, or else the First Amendment would be violated. An instance of censorship by a public authority can be determined by identifying prior restraint, that is, by exposing an exercise of power that restricts expression before-the-fact, by physically preventing a speech act from being expressed. The radical civil libertarian position that the state should staunchly defend First Amendment freedoms from public encroachment of any kind, is the same position anyone should take who utilizes communications resources in civil society.
To draw a judgment from the prior example of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, this organization fell short of asking for an amendment to the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech, not having directly asked for a public policy curbing speech. However, by pressuring public Internet providers (e.g. public universities) to voluntarily censor, the Center may have come very close indeed to asking for prior restraint.
Defending the radical libertarian position requires fighting off challenges from the left and from the right. The religious right critiques not only obscenity, but indecency, blasphemy, and even the exercise of free speech by the left, while the left attacks itself and the right wherever it alleges that some speech — e.g., hate speech and pornography — should be prosecutable.
Bunkley's "First WWW Banned Page"
Over a year ago I began conducting extensive net searches for web pages of the fringe Right. I added Joe Bunkley's page (http://www.gsu.edu/~hisjwbx/#tocan) to my web browser as a bookmark, and there it has sat for many months as a reminder of my political competition. Since 1994, the page has fallen off the ranking indexes of all of the major Web search engines available to me.
Upon returning to this site in late 1995, I realized that the false premise of this page is that it is, or ever has been, banned. The page is virulent, violent, irrational propaganda published at least partially with public resources in Georgia. Obviously, it presents a clear challenge to most aesthetic, political, religious, and philosophical sensibilities, and in the cases of Jews, other racial and religious minorities, and queers, it probably threatens our physical well-being as well.
Like most sites, it is mostly untraveled and unvisited. And as with all web sites, it is a social space which exists only in communications but which also must physically reside on a server paid for by somebody. The institutional affiliation of a web site, especially a public institutional affiliation, can jeopardize its openness to the exercise of free speech. This is the main vulnerability of pages like Bunkley's which are the target of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
In private e-mail correspondence with Mr. Bunkley, I learned that the page never was banned, and is in no foreseeable danger of being banned. The discrepancy between the claim and reality is important. It is the difference between mere delusion and embarrassing self-deception before a global audience. The difference also points up the disturbed psychology of the electronically communicative anti-Semites, who would carry others into their own paranoid delusions about being Christians persecuted by an international conspiracy of Jews. In order to make his revisionist philosophies even mildly plausible, Bunkley needs the argumentative basis of a claim to having his paranoid stories censored by public authorities. The fact is, he misrepresents himself and invents a claim of censorship.
On the page, Bunkley reiterates familiar anti-Semitic theses: 1) that there is a comprehensive system of powerful controls on "whites" held by Jews and their sympathizers, 2) that the Holocaust never happened; and, 3) "Talmudic Judaism" is the "sworn enemy of Christianity." Bunkley mixes these assertions with other conspiracy theories related to the New World Order family of paranoias, including "The COMING FALL OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE/Collapse Of The Western Era And The Jew World Order." At every turn, Bunkley claims to unveil banned, suppressed, new, or little known facts which turn out not to be facts at all, but either hypertext tricks of the eye or embarassing assertions disguised argumentatively as facts. Every hypertext link — whether in a cool expository piece or a hotly polemical essay — is pitched to the visitor as a substantiation, academic reference, or proof of Bunkley's outrageous and impossible position. Bunkley imagines that his tired repetition of old accusations are revelatory articulations of a cutting-edge social movement to reclaim sovereignty for a mythical, nascent white nation of Christian heterosexuals.
At one incredible point in the presentation, Bunkley gives visitors a link that takes them to a page called "Samisdat," (http://www.pixi.com/~bewise/holyhoax.html) a holocaust revisionist page offering "Lies of the 'Holocaust.'" When you click on it, up comes a page that says "As you have already seen, this board exposes a lot of Truth about Political International Zionism and its role in bringing about the ominous New World Order — One World Government. They seem to have no problem at all slamming us with lie after lie in order to achieve what they want to achieve... . Perhaps the most incredible story to date is the 'Holocaust' story... . Have you ever noticed that in spite of VOLUMINOUS evidence that exposes LIE after LIE with regard to this story, we are not allowed to discuss it, unless of course you 'jump onto the bandwagon' and help support it?! After all, it is extremely politically INCORRECT to question any part of what we have been told about the 'Holocaust.'" And so on and so forth.
The punch line is, immediately below this rant, appears the following disclaimer: "CAUTION: ALL 'Holocaust Lies' Pages are presently UNDER CONSTRUCTION. There is a possibility that some of this information may not be 100% correct. We WILL be making the corrections (IF ANY) when found or documented to be in error." This is the cheapest way out of the ugly challenge Bunkley sets before himself, to disprove the historical fact that the Nazis murdered millions and millions of Jews in Europe. Bunkley is not arguing as a postmodern scholar about the social construction of the Holocaust; he is not interested in discussing the transmission of historical identity through culture, religion, or politics. Instead, he is unmethodically tackling what he believes to be pure myth.
Christian Identity is the operative religious philosophy leading Bunkley to this conclusion. Quoting from the Christian Identity's doctrine, "We affirm that the Holy Bible is God's direct communication with ONE special group of people: Israel. Israel consists of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to whom the Bible is directed. Israel was called Yahweh's bride, His chosen, His inheritance, among other favourable names. We affirm that the Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and kindred white peoples of the world, are the direct descendants of Abraham, not the Jews as commonly believed throughout most of Christendom. This is Israel, Yahweh's Chosen Race, a people created (this is the Adamic race) and called for His service and His glory." This doctrine spins off a number of racist, nationalist theses. Milder versions of Christian Identity are disseminated by the religious right in Pat Robertson's New World Order.
Once a logical dissection of his confused argumentation is laid out, the psychological disruption of popular antisemitism comes into plainer view. Bunkley of the Master Race is utterly dependent upon the Jewish slave-victim to confirm his own superiority. But since he inadequately defames his Jewish slaves on the strength of his own weak presentation of historical "truth," he remains vulnerable to his sworn enemy's refutations. Moreover, Bunkley seems utterly unaware of the trouble he gets himself into with pasting disclaimers onto his miserable "truths" about history. The unawareness repeats as little messages peppering the text, like "What is history but a FABLE agreed upon? — Napoleon Bonaparte" and "History is Bunk! — Henry Ford." Bunkley takes us nowhere again and again, like a disoriented Virgil descending the pits of Hell with promises of burning sinners at every turn, but continually returning us to the gates after just a few steps.
As part of the smoke and mirrors of this ugly website, Bunkley has packed his home page with thousands of starting-points which skirt the edges of multiple, far-flung constellations of racist conspiracy theories. His page collects links to an unnerving number of nutcase web, book, and record publishers and radio programmers. Most of these links lead to organizationally astute political groups, including Christian Identity (http://www.alaska.net:80/~schoedel/), National Socialists (TomMetzger@aol.com), the Klan (KlanNY@aol.com), Aryan Nations (firstname.lastname@example.org), Canadian Patriots (email@example.com), National Alliance (http://www.natvan.com/), and various Michigan Militia (http://www.grfn.org/~heiny/cmrm.html) groups. He provides contact names, phone numbers (often 1-800 numbers), addresses, e-mail addresses, times and frequencies, and fax numbers. Over past months, Bunkley has been building into his own page numerous hypertext links to allied web sites (mostly in the U.S. and Canada) and public FTP directories, including a directory containing the spurious Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Bunkley has also provided us with an eclectic "Book List to Arm Yourself" which includes all the Nazi favorites, as well as Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, Jack London, and Edmund Burke. Despite the rich varieties of delusion and confusion it offers in extensive, informative contact lists, somehow, the First Banned Page manages to completely defy the widely noted effect of hypertext to build three dimensions and an added level of complexity into the regular terminal reading or viewing experience. Instead, it creates the nucleus for a future condensation of a porous universe of racist conspiracy sites.
Bunkley has used a fake threat of censorship as a foil to counterpose his radical political threat to civil society. If it weren't for the fact that the page lies about its being targeted with a conspiratorial suppression campaign, it would be tempting to suggest that this case illustrates that censorship — or the perceived threat of censorship — encourages new hate speech. In order to compensate for a deficient reality, Bunkley has constructed a psychological reality which feeds his desire to persecute and be persecuted. Bunkley exemplifies how deeply ultrareactionary ideas have been assimilated by alienated, white members of the lower-middle classes who would score high on Horkheimer and Adorno's Fascism-Scale psychological test today.
Bunkley operates from a Georgia State University system, to which he adds a link concerning the University's free speech policy. That public universities are the sites of hate pages should not be surprising, since they provide some of the best and most extensive public access to Internet publication, and since college is a place where young people experiment with radical thinking and speech, generally without explicit censorship.
After a review a year ago by NPR of the similar "Cyber Hate" site published by Reuben Logsdon at The University of Texas at Austin, the site disappeared and has not returned since, despite UT's lack of an explicit censorship policy. The Daily Texan reported recently that the site was pulled voluntarily. Canadian universities are an exception in North America, where there is a new federal "hate speech" restriction in place, and where other contemporary holocost revisionist publishers such as Ernest Zundel (http://www.webcom.com/~ezundel/english/) are under considerable legal pressure to desist publication.
Strategizing Free Cyber-Speech
Censorship pressures can come from public and private sources. Where the government is concerned, the Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of the latter and usually rejects that of the former (the Pruneyard shopping mall case in California is an exciting exception). This is why a constitutional challenge is expected with the passage of the proposed Telecommunications Bill. Internet access providers will ask if they should be treated as publishers even if they cannot be aware of everything published within their domain, even if they are just providing as a common carrier. Civil libertarians hope that the courts will rule that, just as telephone companies cannot be held liable for obscene phone calls, Internet providers cannot be held liable for hateful or obscene communications. Still, even the censorship campaigns falling short of prior restraint will have a chilling effect on free speech. Access services will clamp down hard on marginal speech to stay safe and profitable rather than incur new risks.
Private censorship campaigns generally lead to self-censorship, or pressure for voluntary withdrawal of speech, without any formal action taken or creation of a new public policy which would impose new formal restrictions. The advantage of using private pressure campaigns is that it is an informal political process which avoids the Constitutional problems involved with exercising prior restraint.
Bunkley's page, like other virulent kinds of propaganda, is intimidating, ugly, and irrational. It presents a forceful challenge to those communitarians and liberals who would ban the most offensive varieties of communication in futile defense of a "community standard." As far as the Web is concerned, the choice between restricting objectionable speech and fighting to keep it unregulated must be approached as a choice of strategy. Hate speech on the Web must be confronted as a political challenge that comes organically with a net expansion of free speech into cyberspace. We can and should argue over content until the cows come home, but also permit the widest, unregulated diversity of content possible to preserve the rule. We must also fight hate speech with stronger, more reasoned speech.
The Bunkleys of the world are uniting, and are revealing their obfuscatory strategy. Should we model our own after the Bunkleys?
Patrick Burkart is Corresponding Secretary for the ACLU's Central Texas Chapter and a social science researcher.