Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

U.s., Europe Both Want to Fight Hate, but They Have Different Ways to Do It

June 21, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Americans and Europeans agree on the need to combat anti-Semitism and racism on the Internet. They just disagree on how to do it.

At a two-day conference in Paris last week organized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, U.S. and European delegates differed sharply, and publicly, over how to maintain the boundaries between the preservation of freedom of speech and governments’ fight against cyber-haters.

In a keynote speech at the conference, Robert Badinter, one of Europe’s leading human rights jurists and a former French justice minister, expressed the widespread European view that democracies have the right to curb freedom of expression when it comes to anti-Semitism and racism.

“We are no longer living at the time of Thomas Jefferson,” Badinter said. “We must adapt our necessary freedoms to an age where people are trying to threaten those freedoms.”

Badinter’s viewpoint was received positively by m! ost of the OSCE’s 55 member states. The OSCE chairman, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Salomon Passy, said that “freedom does not include the unrestricted right to spread hatred.”

However, the United States strongly opposed calls by delegates to censor those who spread racism and anti-Semitism over the Internet. U.S. Assistant Attorney General Dan Bryant said the U.S. government opposes attempts that might suppress or censor Internet sites.

“The Internet is not an enemy of tolerance and human dignity,” Bryant said, making reference to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. While there is “a threat to be feared,” Bryant said the United States prefers to rely on “the marketplace of ideas.” He said there is a certain “social value” in allowing those with unpleasant opinions to express their views.

Badinter said, “Imagine what would have happened if Dr. Goebbels had the Internet,” a reference to the notorious Nazi propaganda chief. “We’re not dealing anymore with ! someone printing 4,000 copies of the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ at the end of the 19th century,” he said. “These sites reach millions of people.”

At the Budapest Convention of 2001, which took aim at Internet crime, countries agreed to collaborate on such matters as confidentiality, child pornography and intellectual property. But the treaty so far has been ratified by only six out of some 40 signatories.

The United States, which signed the Budapest Convention, strongly opposed another treaty, in Strasbourg, France, in 2003, which called for the criminalization of racist and xenophobic material, threats and racist insults pronounced in public, and the diffusion of works that deny the Holocaust. The United States says it violates the First Amendment’s right to free speech.

Brian Marcus, director of Internet monitoring for the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League, said the difference in attitudes toward Internet hate speech can be a plus.

“We can work together. If people use hate material in Holland, Dutch organizations can bri! ng prosecutions while we in the U.S. can instruct the providers to remove the information from their servers,” Marcus said.

In that respect, the U.S. providers are “choosing to be good citizens” by defining clear rules of service, he said.

While the U.S. Constitution protects the right to free speech, there still are a whole gamut of potential legal channels to crack down on hate speech, noted Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the U.S.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center.

He cited the example of a racist site that had downloaded Microsoft’s logo for its own use, changing “business solution” to “final solution,” which was opposed by a lawsuit that steered clear of First Amendment issues.

Bryant said that the U.S. Department of Justice can take legal action against Internet hate sites without compromising the right to free expression.

He cited the example of a 1996 case in the United States in which threatening and racist e-mails were sent to Asia! n students at the University of California. In that case, the sender r an afoul of federal civil rights laws that prohibit “interference by force or threat of force based on race or national origin with a person’s attendance at a public university.”

The offender ultimately received a one-year prison sentence.

But Badinter noted that the vast majority of hateful Web sites are hosted in the United States.

Suzette Brockhorst, secretary-general of the International Network Against Cyber Hate, said that many hate sites today go “jurisdiction shopping. A lot wind up in the U.S., where everything is protected by the First Amendment.”

She said appeals to service providers to remove the Web sites are not sufficient because “it’s Internet users who should be responsible for their actions.”

She also noted that there are cases where U.S. officials seem not as concerned about free-speech rights, particularly when it comes to dealing with one specific international problem: “If it’s done in child pornography, why can’t it be done with hate ! speech?” she said.

Recommended from JTA