Professor Hannah Bloch-Wehba discussed the challenges of controlling hate speech online but said the government should do more to protect the public from white supremacist-inspired violence during an interview with WNYC’s Tanzina Vega that aired on April 29.
The interview came two days after a white nationalist allegedly attacked a synagogue in southern California, killing one woman and injuring three more people shortly after posting a link to a manifesto on the online message board 8chan. Like the massacre that killed 50 six weeks prior at two mosques in Christ’s Church, New Zealand and the synagogue shooting six months ago in Pittsburgh in which 11 died, the attack had drawn inspiration from an online community.
“What the government can actually do to prevent 8chan from continuing to enable these postings is highly limited,” Bloch-Wehba said. “Under U.S. law under the Communications Decency Act, an online forum can’t be held liable for the unlawful content that its users post.”
The U.S. Supreme Court had held that hate speech and Nazi speech are both protected by the First Amendment, Bloch-Wehba said, adding that only speech that incites violence, makes “true threats” and is integral to criminal conduct lacks constitutional cover.
"The problem here is that It's difficult to draw boundaries between all of these categories. But the law that we have does attempt to draw these boundaries, even though sometimes one category of speech that’s presumptively protected can provoke speech that is then unprotected and even outright violent, as we saw in this case,” Bloch-Wehba said.
Vega noted that the Trump administration has cut funding for programs that counter extremist violence by white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
As the second time in six months that violence erupted in a synagogue, Bloch-Wehba said, the attack at Chabad of Poway in California should motivate the government to recognize that white nationalists and white supremacists pose a threat to public safety.
“The government should be using many more tools that it has at its disposal in order to prevent these violent acts from occurring,” she said.