Cyber Racism & The Future of Free Speech (updated)

Two new cases of cyber racism – one in Moscow, the other in Denver – are both making news for the way that they highlight new forms of racism and for the way that they challenge our ideas about free speech.

In Moscow recently, A 21-year-old received a one-year suspended sentence for forming a racist group on the popular Vkontakte social network.  In Russia, forming a racist group on their equivalent of Facebook was illegal because it violated Russia’s anti-extremist laws.   This kind of action on a social networking site is not viewed as “free speech” worthy of protection.   So, what about in the U.S.?

Clavier Apple
(Creative Commons License photo credit: JeanbaptisteM )

Just last month, a former City of Denver employee Joel Pousson, 46, a former clerk at the City and County of Denver’s planning department, was arrested in August after authorities traced a racist, hate-filled e-mail to a computer in his Littleton home. Poussan, who is white, allegedly sent the email to an African American woman who works as a Human Resources Manager on the same day Pousson was notified that he was being terminated.  In the email, Pousson repeatedly called the HR Manager a “n***” and suggested that she was now being targeted by the KKK (a very brief excerpt:  “Because now the Klan has your name and address. And there are plenty of Klan members needing stroke with the klan. … Call it an initiation And the sheet-wearing ghost that takes you out, he gets a lot of rank.”)  The reason that Pousson’s email was not considered “free speech” is that both the State of Colorado and the City of Denver have laws against “Ethnic Intimidation/Threats,” and Pousson’s email was prosecuted under this law.

Whether it’s a group organizing online or an individual sending email, the promotion of racism in the public domain threatens the sense of safety and security for those who are the targets of such cyber racism.  Sometimes, it can also be the precursor to racially motivated violence.  But, even if there’s no explicit threat of violence, racial hatred promoted online runs counter to the ideals of racial equality liberals say they value.

Yet, in the U.S. there’s very little dialogue about cyber racism, in part I think because of the liberal tenet that hate speech just an unfortunate consequence of free speech, even though that’s not true in Europe and other western democracies.  And, free speech according to most of the leading intellectuals writing about the Internet, is considered the highest ideal, as in a post today by Tim Wu at The Chronicle of Higher Ed.  In the piece (which previews a new book he has from Knopf), Wu deftly connects the early crusades against Hollywood movies by Catholics to current efforts to limit speech on the Internet by pressuring technology firms:

These firms are already under strong pressure to censor from powerful governments, religious groups, political parties, and essentially any outfit with a reason to want information suppressed.  The Turkish government, for example, demands that Google take down mockery of the nation’s founder, not just in Turkey, but everywhere. The Church of Scientology has never stopped demanding of anyone who will listen to remove criticism of its practices from the Internet, usually claiming copyright infringement.

Wu’s assessment, like that of Mike Godwin and other cyberlibertarians, about the importance of free speech is flawed because it rests on an analysis of information as existing apart from political and social context.   In such an analysis, “information” on the Internet is content free and should all be treated the same. I do agree with Wu, however, when he writes about what managing speech looks like today:

This is what speech management looks like in 2010. No one elected Facebook or YouTube, and neither one is beholden to the First Amendment. Nonetheless, it is their decisions that dictate, effectively, who gets heard. What’s the answer? There is no easy answer. Monopolies like Google, Facebook, and Hollywood have certain advantages: That’s why they tend to come into existence. That means the American public needs to be aware of the dangers that private censors can pose to free speech. The American Constitution was written to control abuses of power, but it didn’t account for the heavy concentration of private power that we see today. And in the end, power is power, whether in private or public hands.

While Wu evokes “power” at the end of this passage, he doesn’t go quite far enough in his analysis of how power shapes what constitutes information.  Here, Wu is trapped within the same larger (white) frame as other scholars writing about the Internet without considering race.  Within this frame, all “information” is the same offers no mechanism for evaluating claims for racial or social justice against the protection of free speech.   Such a supposedly value-neutral frame for discussing free speech as separate from a social and political context systematically disadvantages some members of society and while it privileges others.   To go back to the two cases of cyber racism I discussed at the top of this post, seeing all speech as neutral “information” would then mean that the racist group organizing online in Moscow and the racist email sender were both entitled to have their speech protected to defend the right to free speech.

Taking a stand against cyber racism isn’t a threat to the future of free speech.   I don’t think we have to defend racist groups online in order to value free speech.  And, I don’t think we have to defend  the actions of people like the guy in Denver who sent the racist emails in order to value free speech either.

Outside the U.S., other democratic nations have taken seriously Article 4 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.  This article requires countries such as Australia, NZ, the UK and Canada which are parties to the Convention to “declare an offence punishable by law all dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred…and also the provision of any assistance to racist activities.” However, complying with this article in the global, digital era is no easy task.

Writing about the Australian context on today’s JWire, Peter Wertheim has a smart column in which he notes the difficulties of battling cyber racism across national boundaries when the U.S. acts as a haven and Internet companies (ISP’s) are recalcitrant, even proud, of hosting racist content.  Wertheim writes:

ISP’s lack the knowledge and insight into racism to enable them to make an informed decision about whether a particular publication has crossed the line into racial vilification or harassment.  More to the point, web-sites often generate advertising revenue for their owners, and the owners pay the ISPs. In social media platforms, the more viewers and discussion, the more advertising revenue can be created, and this advertising revenue usually goes directly to the platform provider. ISP’s and platform providers have a clear commercial interest against any form of regulation, and in being as permissive as possible.  The final decision about whether or not to allow an allegedly racist publication to remain on the net should not rest with them.

Ultimately, even though the law is not the whole answer to cyber racism, it must be a critical part of the answer.  Without the ultimate sanction of the law, the scourge of cyber racism will continue to grow unchecked.  Like other contemporary scourges, such as terrorism and environmental degradation, cyber racism operates across national boundaries and governments acting individually cannot deal with it effectively.

Wertheim’s observation that Internet companies “lack the knowledge and insight into racism” to enable them to know what to do when faced with racist content is an astute one.  I’ve worked in the Internet industry and I don’t think that the people there are evil, but have never learned to think critically about race or racism.   Unlike that MCI commercial from the 1990s, the advent of the Internet has not meant “here – there is no race.” In fact, the advent of the Internet means that we need to be smarter about the new forms of racial hatred – like cyber racism – rather than dismissing them as just the price we pay for free speech.

As Werthiem points out, the law can’t be the whole answer but it “must be a critical part of the answer” is spot on, I think.   And, as Wu notes, these decisions are already being made by those at the helm of Facebook and YouTube.

Cyber racism is a real problem of the Internet era but we shouldn’t confuse taking action against it as a threat to the future of free speech.   In fact, it’s quite possible to balance free speech and concerns about cyber racism.  Indeed, we must in this global, digital era.

Updated 11/16/10 @ 5:18PM ET: Just saw this on Twitter via @hopenothate:  The BBC reports that in the UK, a man has been jailed 15 months for uploading racist video clips calling for a “racial holy war” on YouTube.   Local law enforcement officials are quoted in the piece as saying: “Publishing something that is abusive and insulting and that is likely to stir racial hatred is against the law and [law enforcement] will work with the police to prosecute robustly anyone who does so.” This is not a threat to free speech, but rather recognizes that free speech has to be weighed in the balance with protecting the rights of those who are targeted by racist speech.


  1. eyedream

    You definitely bring up a great point. Not only is racism a problem on the internet, but also bullying. What would be the best way to approach cyper racism and bullying? How would someone go about balancing free speech and what not to say?

  2. serenity

    I think this comes down to an argument of basic human rights and what is considered moral within this context. On one hand you have the basic human right of freedom and specifically freedom of speech. On the other hand you have the rights of equal opportunity and the pursuit of happiness within in a safe environment. Many would argue that cyber racism is free speech and that it should not be censored because in essence no one is getting physically hurt and to censor and punish it would be compromising this basic right. Also if you give the government an inch they will take mile. If you start to censors of one kind of speech, how long will it be before they begin to censor other types of speech, such as political or religious? This is a real fear and concern for some people and I can’t say I am removed from this fear.

    The other issue is that by not censoring or punishing racist cyber comments, the rights to pursue happiness in safe environment with equal opportunity are threatened, because such comments propagate the process and system of racism. Also what is considered harm to another human being? In relationships mental abuse is considered harmful but never punished by law. Racist cyber comments also affect people’s mental health and well being. However if we follow common law regarding mental abuse it would not be punished, but this can also be overturned by a simple written law stating otherwise. Then you have the issue that mental abuse cannot be measured the way physical abuse can and therefore is gray area that is hard to define, which also probably why the mental harm racist comments cause is often overlooked within the discourse concerning racism.

    Overall, I would say that basic human rights to the pursuit of happiness in safe environment and equal opportunity outweigh that of free speech in the case of racist cyber comments. The effects of racist comments are far more damaging than the affects of controlling speech.

    This then begs the question whose responsibility is it? Is it the government’s job to censor speech? Or should this be an issue of people who do not believe in racism to speak up and make their voice heard as well as help educate the population about the effects of such comments. I would say that to start censoring cyber racism would just sweep the issue under the rug and not really fix anything, because censoring it or punishing will not change the views of those who wrote it. I think people may benefit more from an open discourse surrounding the comments and active vocal push back than censorship, because discussing and debating it can open up educational opportunities regarding racism, whereas censorship just hides the issue and almost makes it a non issue. This concept of underground racism is one of the reasons it is so hard to fix modern racism, because so many people are afraid to even mention it.

    I say that an not censoring cyber racist comments would possible by more beneficial all around. Any thoughts, comments, and disagreements about what I said is welcome???

  3. Joe

    thanks, Jessie, very good issues. I see that Wu’s book is taking a lot of flak on some of the libertarian-type internet review sites, like here:

    What is your take on Wu’s book’s main arguments about how government regulation of previous communication enterprises (like the phone industry) and current enterprises (like Apple) have facilitated capitalistic monopolies, yet he calls on the same government to protect things like net neutrality?

  4. Jessie Author

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, @eyebeam @serenity and @Joe. A few responses to your queries:
    @eyebeam – I think that some regulations along the lines of what Colorado has on the books is a good start, but those kinds of statutes are only a partial solution.
    @serenity – The question about ‘whose responsibility is this’ is a good one. And, the short answer is that I think that it’s everyone’s responsibility who says that they’re “not a racist” or “anti-racist.” So, in addition to the legal remedies (changing laws), most Internet companies have Terms of Service (TOS) agreements that ban racist speech on their sites, but they’re rarely enforced because few people complain. I think that good liberals who say that they’re against racism should be raising the issue with the Internet companies.
    @Joe – I’m familiar with Wu’s previous book with Goldsmith, _Who Controls the Internet?_ and I saw that link when I was preparing this post. Based on what I know of his work, I’d characterize Wu as a ‘moderate’ cyberlibertarian. I’ll have to read more of his work to assess his current claims about the ‘net.

  5. serenity

    Thank you for your response. I think you bring a good point about those of us who claim to be “anti-racist” taking an active role with the companies and complaining about racist cyber comments. I think that this would have more immediate effectual change than dealing with the government. Resolving things through the government is often a long drawn out process, and dealing with private companies usually yields faster results.

  6. emilyarnold

    Isn’t it quite difficult to even mildly monitor what one person out of millions is doing on the internet? As an avid user of many social networking sites and blogging platforms, I’m well aware that when there is clear violation of the website’s rules (i.e., nudity, photos of abuse, etc.) as a good internet citizen, I should report them. But many times, when there are unfavorable posts that can merely be put under the heading of someone’s opinion, the line is quite blurry, and how does one distinguish through actual hate-speech and someone just trying to rile up a crowd, especially with how people can behave behind the anonymous shroud of the internet.
    Are we proposing that at some point, when something unfavorable is reported to a staff member at a website, they will have to determine whether or not to get law enforcement involved? Or will all complaints be forwarded to someone of authority to determine whether or not it should be investigated? It just feels so muddy and unclear, as there is so much free reign on the internet, and it is so hard to draw the line for anything anymore, especially when someone can merely say they were joking and it just wasn’t conveyed well through a text post.

    • serenity

      I would agree with you that the lines are muddled and unclear in where to draw the line on what is racism and what is free speech, but there is something you said that I disagree with. You stated that maybe something racially offensive is meant to be a “joke” that the humor does not convey well in written form. I would say the jokes regarding race or racial stereotypes are indeed forms of racism and possibly harmful to people who identify with the race being “joked” about. Often times racial jokes come form someone’s belief in a stereotype about a race, whether or not this is conscious to them. Therefore things like racial jokes, and racist cyber comments are harmful to society overall if in fact you do believe that racism is wrong, because the facilitate the system of racism, prejudice, and hierarchy throughout society.

  7. Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

    Racialized “jokes” are racist, and lead to a racist environment. That’s becoming scientific knowledge.

    I disagree that having it “out there” is an overall benefit. I disagree because they people who believe or need to believe such nonsense will not listen to reason or facts. And having the lies and hate out in discourse creates easier access for those who’re susceptible to buy into racist ideology. Kinda like the child of alcoholics: it’s better for them not to drink at all.

    ISPs and social networks would do well to hire and listen to people of color on these issues. Most white people haven’t learned to think critically about race because they just flat haven’t had to think critically about race. And trust me, until the intelligence, morality, vernacular, and culture of your ethnic group are challenged as inferior, you haven’t had to think critically about race.

    I feel conflicted when it comes to the part government should play. On one hand, I love, love the way European countries deal with speech. Get this – a recently elected official in England lost his seat after being found guilty of lying about his opponent! Can you imagine how much better our government would be if there were criminal laws against lies in politics? As a proponent of racial and social justice, I just can’t get enough of that!

    Of course, in response, a US-American commenter touted US laws dealing with speech as superior. And that gets me to my conflict.

    It seems one thing Europeans have over US-Americans is that they understand no man is an island unto himself. We’re all our brother’s keepers. It seems like they don’t deify the “individual” such that one person’s liberties are protected over and above one group’s rights. No individual person or group is allowed to harm the collective.

    But in the US, we protect the “free speech” of Limbaugh and Palin, no matter how ultimately damaging. Or rather, in the US, we protect whites as a collective. For example, Don Imus insulted Rutgers’ women’s basketball team in particular and all black women in general; yet, it only took a day or two before the conversation turned to the presentation of women in rap. Imus is back on the air; hip-hop and rap still face the threat of censorship.

    So while on one hand, I would love it were “speech” to become a tad bit more “expensive.” But when we have a SCOTUS that rules against voluntary attempts at integration on the basis that the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is “to stop discriminating on the basis of race” – I’m weary of how they would rule, if they would rule, in such cases were we to have laws against hate speech.

    Of course, if the issue were the rhetoric of the New Black Panther Party as opposed to the rhetoric of Glenn Beck, I feel quite safe in assume there’d be no problems ruling against hate speech.

    Oh, and before I forget, let’s not overlook the US-American whites seem to have trouble when it comes to defining what counts as hate speech and what doesn’t. When we have so many whites who applaud, or at least allow, Pat Robertson to blame the WTC attacks on feminism and the LGBT community while condemning Jeremiah Wright’s condemnation of US foreign policy, I question the ability of whites to decide what’s hate and what’s not. (I should add that US-white liberals condemn both Robertson and Wright. But I question even their decision-making abilities as what Wright said wasn’t aimed at any particular group and was based on facts and reality, while Robertson’s comments are based in hate and condescension.)

  8. Joel Pousson

    Hello. I am the Joel Pousson referenced in this article. I wrote the email you spoke of.

    This was the most ignorant mistake I have ever made in my life. In writing this email, I violated every personal ethic I have ever held dear. For this email, i was sentenced to eighteen months in Denver County Jail, of which I served nine months and was released on good behavior.

    I do not stand by a single word in this email. I wrote it in the middle of a total emotional meltdown as a result of being fired baselessly. The person I wrote it to, and sent to anonymously, was a black woman. I had confided in her, and relied on her, to try and resolve a conflict with another employee, and unfortunately, instead of trying to resolve the conflict, she instead decided to falsely point the finger of blame at me and pushed for my unjustified termination.

    However, when brought before the judge, I pled guilty to the charge of harassment. I did so because I DID write the email. I took responsibility for my stupid decision, and for my hurtful behavior. And I ended up spending far more time in County Jail than many felons who committed violent offenses.

    I do not say this here to ask for forgiveness; I do not even forgive myself. I just state that this is what occurred, that I wrote and sent this email as a result of a total emotional breakdown because I was losing my job unfairly. It was the wrong thing to do, and I continue to pay the price for this decision even now that my jail sentence has been served.

    Attacking someone for the color of their skin is wrong. I have never, ever done anything like this before, and nothing like this will ever happen again. Not because I was caught, not because I went to jail for it – simply because it was absolutely the wrong thing to do.

    • Blaque Swan

      It wasn’t just racist, it was also terrifying. You issued a threat, ie “the KKK has your name.” That’s a threat.

      That said, I’m glad you’ve turned the corner on things. But continuing to punish yourself doesn’t really help anyone. The best thing you can do is learn from this, continue to educate yourself on issues of race — especially implicit and subconscious racism — and speak out when- and wherever you see injustice. Be it racial, gender, or anything else. Now that you know better, do better. Forgive yourself and do better.

      Best hopes and solidarity . . .

    • Seattle in Texas

      Hello Joel,

      Glad you’re here and appreciate your courage to share. If you don’t mind questions–would you mind considering the questions of where you think that response may have come from? You suggest it was the result of an emotional breakdown–but it must have been something deeper? Do you know where the racism came/comes from? Why? How?

      We wish you the best in your growth process and perhaps you can use your experience to help educate on antiracism someday.

      • Blaque Swan


        Yeah, Joel. I wasn’t sure if I should be the one to point it out, but honestly, the response is more than an emotional breakdown. The excerpt I read come across as nearly a psychotic break. Two pages worth of KKK threats and the n-word? Desecrating her grave? There’s definitely some part of you that saw her, a person who’s black and female, as less than human. It’s that part of you that you need to address. And it’s not a matter of self-control. It’s more than just flipping through your mental dictionary for better, more “pc” words. It’s more than setting strict controls on your email account. Can you really promise yourself you’ll never have another breakdown? And since you can’t – who can make that promise? – what’s gonna be in your vocabulary? Are you going to be close to your email account with the strict controls on outgoing messages?

        I say this not just for Joel, but for everyone. The Bible says, “What you say flows from what is in your heart.” I hope that makes sense even to those who aren’t Christian (or of any religion). If we work on what’s in our hearts, it won’t matter what words we have in our vocabulary.

    • Seattle in Texas


      And some suggested readings if interested: (not allowed in the Texas prisons…imagine that…); ; …or anything on the suggested reading list at this site, as well as the documentaries….

      Also, a good way to both give and receive support, to learn and teach, etc., while moving in a different direction, is through anti-oppression coalitions. Such organizations, and very good ones, have supporters, victims, and former perpetrators, active and working together.

      Alright, that’s it and take care if you come back.

  9. cordoba blue

    I just read Blaque Swan’s comment and I TOTALLY AGREE with her (and Blacque Swan and I don’t always agree..I’m kind of a pain like that. lol)
    I was actually about to address this threat-email on this score myself. Yeah..this was a little strong for a reaction to being fired. I know alot of people who lost their jobs in the last 3 years and didn’t bring out the assault rifle and open up in Walmart’s.
    That email was filled with violence and terrorist type activities intent. The person who wrote that needs some counseling as to alternate ways to express disappointment. Nobody HAS THE RIGHT to address other people in that manner NO MATTER WHAT the CIRCUMSTANCE. It’s not just a question of remorse. How does this person (like Swan said) truly know they won’t bust a cap again? I mean..that was a whole Lotta anger there!
    Also, I notice that with ethnic minorites, when white people are angry, they sometimes throw in an ethnic slur or make mention of the person’s ethnicity. For example: “That plumber charged me $200 and didn’t even fix the sink. Stupid (ethnic slur)”. But if it had been a white person who fixed the sink,”Spencer charged me $200 to fix the sink and didn’t even fix it. Damn him”. I’ve noticed this.
    Groups who haven’t been completely assimilated into America get their ethnicity thrown in everytime a white person is angry with them. I’ve noticed white people doing this with Jewish people, Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans.
    Point is, the email sender should do some examining about how he feels about ethnic groups in general AS WELL as get some counseling because someday he may decide to act on his impulses instead of just write emails. That’s how full blown terrorist activity begins: with scurrilous detailed threats about what the perpetrator “wants to do”.


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