Is it possible to start a riot through email?

For the same reasons the Internet has been heralded as a harbinger of empowerment, democratization and equal time, well-meaning politicians and headline-grabbing journalists have begun casting the global network in a negative light -- and, once again, their views and editorials are threatening free speech.

It doesn't matter if you're a school kid, a terrorist or just a homebody typing at your keyboard, the flip side of "everyone can publish" is beginning to be felt. On the Internet, in other words, everyone is publishing.

That includes the Ku Klux Klan, who urge us to "End the Invisible Agenda to Destroy the White Race!" Meanwhile the not-so-amusing Aryan Nation provides 100 "facts" which "prove" the inferiority of black people. But it's not just abhorrent political agendas which have many people up in arms.

An abundance of information is available online on how to commit crimes, hurt people and blow things up. One site can teach you how to make dynamite, black powder, smoke bombs, chemical bombs, pipe bombs, incendiary bombs, poisonous projectile weapons, nitromethane bombs, thermite bombs, cyclonite bombs, ammonium nitrate bombs, Molotov cocktails, as well as various means for breaking into buildings and destroying expensive machinery.

If you read the site carefully, you'll also come across a disclaimer which asserts that the information is solely for educational purposes. The site authors explain that the information reflects techniques by which some people "in this and other countries... employ terror as a means to political and social goals."

Disclaimer or no, this is the sort of information that many lawmakers would censor in a heartbeat if the Constitution wasn't in their way.

Last summer, after the Oklahoma City bombing hearings, an outraged Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) introduced legislation making it a crime to provide access to bomb-making instructions online. There was no evidence of a connection between the Internet and the Oklahoma City tragedy, but Feinstein maintained that information about killing people "is not what America is about."

Unfortunately for Feinstein, the First Amendment was designed to ensure that Americans can espouse unpopular views and disseminate all sorts of information, even if that information could potentially be used to harm people or property.

Of course, there are limits to our free speech. It was almost 80 years ago, for instance, that the Supreme Court ruled that one may not lawfully shout "fire" in a crowded theater if nothing's burning.

So when would bomb web sites be illegal? Criminal prosecution of speech must withstand the two-pronged test established by the Supreme Court. To be constitutional, a law may not prohibit the content of speech unless that speech 1) "is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action," and 2) it is "likely to produce such action."

In short, it's illegal to advocate illegal action in such as a way as is likely to be heeded -- such as successfully inciting a riot by shouting "Kill the police!" on a street corner. Is a web site capable of such powerful and immediate advocacy?

Incendiary messages on a web site are much different phenomena than speaking to a crowd on a street corner. Readers are widely dispersed around the world, not in the presence of the inciting speaker.

Disturbingly, when it was pointed out to Feinstein that her bill might infringe on our freedom of expression, she retorted that those were the very sort of rights in need of re-examination. Feinstein's anti-terrorism bill eventually passed in a form substantially less threatening to free speech.

As noted, it's already illegal to direct people toward criminal action in such a way that the directions are likely to be heeded. (The recipe for the bomb used in Oklahoma City is readily available in the U.S. government's own "Blaster's Handbook.")

The question over whether information that is legally available should be illegal online still lingers, though. Many factions continue to try to paint the Internet as being filled with dark alleys of depravity and violence. But if we are to retain free speech, that most open of forums must be protected at least as vehemently as any other.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), a First Amendment champion, has hit it right on the head; the real problem, he says, is "harmful and dangerous conduct -- not speech." And for the Internet, whether we're talking bombs or revolution, the same standard must apply.


Add a comment