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Hate speechWhat is the online equivalent of a burning cross?

By Jessie Daniels

Published 1 September 2017

White supremacy is woven into the tapestry of American culture, online and off. Addressing white supremacy is going to take much more than toppling a handful of Robert E. Lee statues or shutting down a few white nationalist websites, as technology companies have started to do. We must wrestle with what freedom of speech really means, and what types of speech go too far, and what kinds of limitations on speech we can endorse. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled, in Virginia v. Black, that “cross burning done with the intent to intimidate has a long and pernicious history as a signal of impending violence.” In other words, there’s no First Amendment protection because a burning cross is meant to intimidate, not start a dialogue. But what constitutes a burning cross in the digital era?

White supremacy is woven into the tapestry of American culture, online and off – in both physical monuments and online domain names. A band of tiki-torch-carrying white nationalists gathered first online, and then at the site of a Jim Crow-era Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Addressing white supremacy is going to take much more than toppling a handful of Robert E. Lee statues or shutting down a few white nationalist websites, as technology companies have started to do. We must wrestle with what freedom of speech really means, and what types of speech go too far, and what kinds of limitations on speech we can endorse.

The First Amendment right to free speech was never meant to protect the kind of hate-filled rhetoric that summoned the mass gathering in Charlottesville, during which anti-racist demonstrator Heather Heyer was killed. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled, in Virginia v. Black, that “cross burning done with the intent to intimidate has a long and pernicious history as a signal of impending violence.” In other words, there’s no First Amendment protection because a burning cross is meant to intimidate, not start a dialogue. But what constitutes a burning cross in the digital era?

Stormfront, the epicenter of hate online
I’ve been researching white supremacists for more than 20 years, and that work has straddled either side of the digital revolution. In the 1990s, I explored their movement through printed newsletters culled from the Klanwatch archive at the Southern Poverty Law Center. As the web grew, my research shifted to the way these groups and their ideas moved onto the internet. My studies have included two white supremacist websites, one decommissioned and the other still active – Stormfront and martinlutherking.org. One is widely viewed as having run afoul of free speech protections; the other, at least as disturbing, has not yet been seen that way.

The Stormfront website, the online progenitor of (as its tagline touted) “white pride worldwide,” launched in 1995. Over more than two decades, Stormfront amassed more than 300,000 registered users and offered a haven for hate online. Since 2009, there have been nearly 100 homicides attributable to registered members of the site, prompting the Southern Poverty Law Center to call it “the murder capital of the internet.”