Commentary

Web Restrictions Unlikely to Muzzle Neo-Nazi Speech

By Adam D. Thierer
January 15, 2001
Let’s face it: People can say some pretty stupid things on the Internet. And sometimes what they say can be pretty offensive.

A case in point is neo-Nazi hate sites. These knuckleheads still believe in a perverted socialist philosophy and rule by an Aryan “master race.” Worse, they want to spew this garbage to a larger audience than their buddies. They want a global audience. And the Internet provides the perfect medium.

The Washington Post recently reported that the German interior minister has identified almost 800 neo-Nazi Web sites located outside Germany. These sites are accessible to Germans and, therefore, in violation of its curbs on neo-Nazi speech.

Regrettably, to shelter themselves from the German restrictions, the global skinhead gangs got smart and housed their sites on servers in the United States. Now, the German government wants to shoot the messenger. Germany’s supreme court recently ruled that the country’s restrictions on neo-Nazi speech could be applied outside Germany within the borderless world of cyberspace. In other words, Americans who own the servers or communications networks over which neo-Nazis distribute their materials could be held liable.

And it’s not just Germany that is going after American firms whose sites might carry such material. In late November, a French court ordered the popular American Web portal “Yahoo!” to find a way to prevent French citizens from accessing auctions of Nazi memorabilia. “Yahoo!” has asked a U.S. federal judge to block the French court’s ruling. The company says the court is violating the free speech rights of “Yahoo!” and its property rights as an American firm.

Whatever you think of the efforts by German and French judges to sanitize the Internet, there’s a big problem: They can never work — at least not without creating an international police force to patrol the World Wide Web and punish any company whose networks might be used to transmit neo- Nazi messages or deal in Nazi memorabilia.

Even if such a global government solution were possible, holding the messenger liable is rarely an effective way of halting the flow of objectionable material. The funny thing about humans is that the more you try to shut them up, the more they want to be heard. Shutting down one channel of communication will force people to seek other channels.

Moreover, the rest of the world has often held a bit of a grudge against America’s strong defense of free speech and its beloved First Amendment. In a recent column praising the French verdict in the “Yahoo!” case, for example, a writer for the British newspaper The Guardian boasted:

“To those of us who have endured decades of cultural imperialism, in which American companies claim an apparently God-given right to impose their values on every territory they choose to occupy, U.S. outrage at the French verdict raises, at best, hollow laughter.”

Let them laugh. They’ve reminded us why, in part, we rebelled against England in the first place. Thankfully, Americans take free speech a bit more seriously than the Brits, the French, the Germans and rest of the world. And, yes, America could become the guardian of free speech worldwide by offering the protection of the First Amendment over the Net to millions of people who have been denied the right to speak freely in their own countries.

Consider: This column will likely appear on the Web and be available to a global audience. And it likely will generate hate mail from people overseas who will call me another arrogant American who wants to impose my country’s will on the rest of the world. But the fact that they will find this article on the Web and respond to it proves why the free flow of ideas over the Net is so important.

Trying to shut down a few skinhead hate sites may seem harmless to a European judge. But it poses an impossible enforcement challenge. It’s also a serious threat to the sacred concept of free speech.

For now, let’s ignore the Nazi wackos. Better that they are blathering on the Net than marching in the town square.

Adam D. Thierer is the director of telecommunications studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.