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Free Speech: Too Hot An Issue to Handle?, by Deb Shinder

If you've been "on the net" for a few years, firing up the browser or downloading the day's e-mail has probably become second nature to you, just another routine part of your life.

But those who have not yet made the plunge and become "connected" -- who have never surfed the bandwaves of the web or clicked their ways halfway across the globe or let their fingers do the talking to people they never met -- view our virtual world from a very different perspective. Cyberspace is as exotic and strange to them as outer space, full of mystery and potential danger.

Those who have no first-hand knowledge of life online may form opinions based on information (and misinformation) they get from traditional media sources. Unfortunately some print and TV journalists have a tendency to either glamourize or sensationalize whatever they report on, and as with other topics, often "good news is no news." The tragedies, crimes, and other events of a negative nature garner all the headlines. Is it any wonder, then, that even in today's high-tech society, there are prevailing misperceptions about the global cybercommunity and we who inhabit it?

Whoever we are, and whatever our interests, we can usually find like souls somewhere online. We have access to so many, so readily and so easily, that it's far easier to find a niche here where we feel we fit in. The result is a sense of community and camaraderie between online cohorts that rivals real-life friendships. But as we cybercitizens know, the net no longer resembles a small town -- it's more like a sprawling metropolis. Those who live in one part of "town" may have no idea what people in other neighborhoods are like or what they do. Like any big city, the Internet has its sleazy underside. I still remember how, in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, folks in other parts of the country pronounced Dallas, Texas a "city of hate" because the only thing they knew about the city was that a very horrendous event had taken place there. Likewise, "out-of-towners" now hear about illegal or immoral activities in which a tiny percentage of the whole online population is involved, and view us all from that skewed perspective.

An issue often raised in connection with the growth of the Internet, both by those with a political agenda and others genuinely concerned with the direction in which our society is headed, is freedom of speech. A controversial subject long before the electronic age, it becomes even more so when all these new variables are added. By outsiders, the net is often portrayed as a vast wasteland of unbridled pornography, a haven for hate-crime proponents, literally a place where anything and every thing goes. In some cases, it is.

There's no denying that some pretty despicable special interest groups and disturbed individuals have seized onto the ease of instantaneous far-reaching communication and the protection of relative anonymity to publish materials which, by the standards of the "average Joe" (or JoAnn) are outrageously offensive.

Neo-nazi groups use the Internet to disseminate their propoganda to a much larger audience than they might ever have reached otherwise. Mentally deranged teenagers hunt down instructions for building bombs posted by other malcontents. Sexual predators cruise the chatrooms looking for victims. Purveyors of sick humor splash their "art" across continents in one fell swoop, courtesy of free webspace providers and HTML authoring software "so easy a child can do it". Sociopaths, previously prone to isolation within their "real world" communities, find one another and reinforce each other's obsessions.

It seems that reporters look for any way to link the perpetrators of tragic events like the Jasper, TX dragging death defendants and the Littleton, CO high school mass murderers, to the online world. "Suspects espoused hate crimes on the Internet," the headlines tell us -- and as a result parents debate taking net access away from their children, lest their own kids become corrupted by all those awful influences out there on the tangled web we've woven in the land of hypertext.

Even those of us who have vigorously defended the right to free speech all our lives may have second thoughts when we come face to face with the degree of perversity that some members of the human race are capable of not only imagining, but proudly exhibiting in a very public forum. I consider myself a champion of the rights outlined in the first and subsequent amendments to the U.S. Constitution -- but my ability to practice what I've always preached is sorely tested by webpages devoted to the annihilation of racial "enemies," newsgroups dedicated to the exchange of binary photos of women and children being tortured and mutilated for sexual titillation, mailing lists created for serial rapists -- and worse -- to brag of their exploits and plan their future crimes.

But maybe that's the truest test of our beliefs. It's easy to support the rights of those whose free speech doesn't offend us personally. It's much harder to say of something we find disgusting: "I don't agree with what you say -- but I'll defend your right to say it."

If we dare to do so, we may find ourselves judged harshly. We may be accused of being sympathetic to or even supporting the atrocities perpetuated in the name of free speech. And if we don't, we may find our own freedoms quashed along with the rest. It's not an easy decision, because either way, we stand to lose something vital in the process.


Deb ShinderDebra Littlejohn Shinder is a writer, editor, community college instructor, and part-time computer consultant who lives in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area with her husband, Tom, and her teenage son.

E-mail Debra at: deb@shinder.net or shinder@dallas.net


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