Hate speech in our society is nothing new. The real news is the rise of hate speech against Jews, Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities in the realm of social media and social networking. Since the 1st hate site, Storm Front went online in 1995, the growth of hate speech on the net has been astounding.
While the greatest increase in hate postings have come from Facebook and YouTube, Twitter has not been immune. Twitter users supporting the likes of Hitler, NeoNazis, KKK, and The Westboro Baptist Church are regular Twitter fixtures.
Unlike Facebook, YouTube and most other responsible social networking sites, Twitter, while having Terms Of Service prohibiting “true threats” has no rules against hate speech. It was therefore no surprise that while monitoring the Twitter-Feed of the Jewish Internet Defense Force (JIDF) I came across the below Tweet from Truman State University student, Rachel Oettig. You can read the JIDF response to the situation here.
This is certainly hate speech. Did Rachel break any laws? Interesting question. If Rachel had simply tweeted to the Twitter universe I would argue that no laws were broken and she had 1st Amendment protection for her speech.
Rachel however tweeted to another individual with a Twitter account. This adds a different type of context and new questions. Was there any further act between Rachel and this person in furtherance of her desire to “Kill Jews” such as meeting to discuss it? If the answer is yes, there is an argument that laws regarding solicitation and conspiracy would come into play. Did the individual respond with any tweet? I do not know. What if this individual tweeted back, “Lets do it! Meet you in 5 Minutes!” ( I have no reason to believe this person tweeted anything back at all-it is a hypothetical).
What if the desire to “Kill Jews” was re-tweeted to someone who took Rachel seriously and actually committed a murder? These are the problems of “Hate 2.0” that have not yet been addressed by our courts. The new laws of “imminence” in a viral world.
Let’s assume that Rachel was joking and there was no real intent to kill Jews. There was nothing more in furtherance of the act than her tweet. Is it then 1st Amendment protected?
While she clearly expresses her desire to “Kill Jews” there is no specific threat would trigger the “imminence” requirement under Brandenberg v. Ohio or qualify as a “true threat” under Virginia v. Black. This is important because as a state school, there would be 1st Amendment/Free Expression considerations for Truman in deciding what action, if any, to take against Ms. Oettig. Truman State University’s Student Code of Conduct states the following as prohibited activity:
“Any activity that requires the student or prospective member to perform a duty or task that involves a violation of the criminal laws of this state or any University policies, rules, or regulations published in University documents”
It an interesting question as to whether enforcement of Truman’s conduct code against Ms. Oettig would in fact violate her 1st Amendment right to Free Expression regardless of how hateful and misguided that expression is. It appears that her tweet requires a student or someone to violate criminal law to do what she asks(killing someone) in violation of the Student Conduct Code but the threat itself does not appear to be the type of true threat generally needed to violate a criminal statute.
And what if this was just the end-result of terribly poor judgment of a young misguided girl. A young-lady all of 18 or 20 years old. Certainly old enough to know better. Also old enough to be currently getting a clear understanding forced upon her that with one tweet she has altered her life forever. That tweet of hatred will follow her through job applications, school applications, prospective boyfriends and anyone else who Googles her name from now until the end of the internet.
In the end, the most troubling aspect is that this is undoubtedly learned behavior. Whether Rachel thought she was being funny or even the remote possibility she was serious, someone or her peer group has taught her that these thought patterns, desires and behaviors are appropriate. Unless secondary schools, universities, and ultimately where the real responsibilities lie, the parents do more to to educate their students and children on the virtues of tolerance, troubled souls like Rachel will simply be another brick in the never ending wall of hatred.
Is there any upside for Rachel? It will undoubtedly be difficult dealing with the negativity of her foolish, hateful moment but it also has the potential to be a defining positive moment in her life. Defining her as a person of tolerance; as a person wishing to understand prejudice and bigotry; as a responsible adult moving into the future. If she chooses this road rather than the road of hatred she appears to be currently traveling, I wish her the best in her journey.