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Frequently Asked Questions About Hate Crimes and Hate on the Internet

Hate Crime Definitions and Trends
Hate on the Internet
Hate Crime Definitions and Trends
What is a hate crime?
These are crimes committed against individuals or groups or property based on the real or perceived race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, national origin, or ethnicity of the victims. The role played by these personal characteristics in motivating the offender is the key difference between hate crimes and other crimes.

Why do hate crimes occur?
Hate crimes often occur as a result of prejudice and ignorance. A lack of understanding about differences among people and their traditions contributes to fear and intolerance. Left unaddressed, these sentiments may often lead to acts of intimidation and ultimately hate-motivated violence.

How often do hate crimes occur?
According to the FBI, reported hate crimes increased slightly, from 7,462 in 2002 to 7,489 in 2003. The 7,489 hate crime incidents reported to the FBI involved 8,715 separate offenses, 9,100 victims, and 6,934 known offenders. Racial bias represented the largest percentage of bias-motivated incidents (51.3%), followed by Religion Bias (17.9%), Sexual Orientation Bias (16.5%), Ethnicity Bias (13.7%), and Disability Bias (0.4%). Anti-black bias was the most prevalent racial motivation, with 2,548 incidents (34% of all hate crimes); anti-male homosexual bias was the most common sexual orientation motivation, with 783 incidents (10.5% of all hate crimes). The number of reported anti-Islamic crimes decreased from 155 in 2002 to 149 in 2003, a decrease of 0.4%. In addition, the number of hate crimes directed at individuals on the basis of their national origin/ethnicity also decreased ¬¬- from 1,102 in 2002 to 1,026 in 2003.

Who commits hate crimes?
Of the 6,934 identified hate crime offenders, the majority were white (4,317, or 62.3%); 1,286 (18.5%) were black, 61 (0.9%) were American Indian or Alaskan Native, 93 (1.3%) were Asian or Pacific Islander, 741 (10.7%) were of unknown race, and the remaining 436 (6.3%) were of other races or multiple races. The five states with the highest numbers of hate crime were: California (1,472 incidents, 19.7% of total reported incidents), New York (602, 8%), New Jersey (594, 7.9%), Michigan (427, 5.7%), and Massachusetts (403, 5.4%). These five states comprise 46.7% of all incidents reported in the United States.

Where do hate crimes usually occur?
According to the FBI, the highest percentage of reported hate crimes (32%) occurred on or near residential properties. The FBI also reports that 19% of hate crimes committed took place on highways, roads, alleys, or streets. Another 11% of those crimes took place at schools and colleges, while 28% were widely distributed across different locations.

Are hate crimes decreasing or increasing?
It is difficult to tell if hate crimes are on the rise or on the decline. On the one hand, reporting hate crimes is a voluntary action taken by States and localities. Some States with clear histories of racial prejudice and intolerance have reported zero incidents of hate crimes. At the same time, many victims of hate crimes are often reluctant to come forward -- a direct result of the trauma caused by the crime. Although the Hate Crime Statistics Act was passed in 1990, States have only been collecting and reporting information about these crimes to the FBI since 1991. It appears that for those States and localities that have reported hate crimes, the number of incidents nationwide has continued to hover annually somewhere between 6,000 and 8,600. Again, this may be indicative simply of the reporting or non-reporting trends of different localities

Is there an increase in hate crimes following a national crisis or during other difficult times?
While direct correlations are always difficult to establish, there is strong evidence that when the country is faced with traumatic events, such as the tragic events at the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, hate crimes escalate. In the weeks following the events of September 11th, for example, the FBI initiated numerous hate crime investigations involving reported attacks on Arab- American citizens and institutions. These attacks ranged from verbal harassment to physical assaults. There were also reports of mosques being firebombed or vandalized. Attacks on people with no cultural, political, or ethnic affinity with any Middle Eastern group, but who 'looked Arab' or 'looked Muslim' also became common following the emotional upheaval that followed the attack. In the wake of the overwhelming response to the toll-free hotline established to document claims of discrimination, harassment, and hate crimes following the September 11th terrorist attacks, the United States Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR) expanded its capacity to collect information by initiating a second toll-free hotline. During one 12-hour period following the attacks, the volume of calls peaked at approximately 70 calls per hour. [NOTE: For more information on hate crimes following the acts of terrorism on September 11, 2001, visit the USCCR Web site at www.usccr.gov.]

How do hate crimes affect local communities?
Hate crimes are committed with the intent not only of sending a message to the targeted victim, but also to the community as a whole. The damage done to victims and to communities through hate crimes cannot be qualified adequately if one only considers physical injury. The damage to the very fabric of a community where a hate crime has occurred must also be taken into account. Hate crimes. in effect, create a kind of public injury because they rapidly erode public confidence in being kept free and safe from these crimes. To that extent, crimes of this nature can traumatize entire communities.

What can we do to prevent the spread of hate-motivated behavior?
The most important thing that adults can do to reduce the spread of hate-motivated behavior is to help young people learn to respect and celebrate diversity. Research shows that children between the ages of 5 and 8 begin to place value judgments on similarities and differences among people. Moreover, children's racial attitudes begin to harden by the fourth grade, making the guidance of adults during this time period particularly important. It is essential that adults talk openly and honestly with children about diversity, racism, and prejudice. In schools, teachers and administrators should engage in educational efforts to dispel myths and stereotypes about particular groups of people and whenever possible work with parents and local law enforcement authorities so that such an effort is supported on many fronts.

Are there any statistics available on youth-initiated hate crimes?
In 1990, the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations reported that approximately one-third of all Los Angeles County schools had experiences with hate crimes. The Bureau of Justice Assistance reported that in 1994, young people under the age of 20 carried out nearly half of all hate crimes committed. According to the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the FBI, and other researchers, hate crime perpetrators are usually under the age of 26. These facts further underscore the importance of intervening with young children as early as possible.

Can a hate crime be committed with words alone?
The use of bigoted and prejudiced language does not in and of itself violate hate crime laws. This type of offense is frequently classified as a bias incident. However, when words threaten violence, or when bias-motivated graffiti damages or destroys property, hate crime laws may apply.

Does bias have to be the only motivation in order to charge someone with a hate crime?
In general, no, although the answer may depend on how courts in a particular jurisdiction or State have interpreted its hate crime laws. It is not uncommon for people to commit crimes for more than one reason. Many hate crimes are successfully prosecuted even when motivations in addition to bias are proven.

Why can't the government ban use of the Internet to spread hateful and racist ideology in the United States?
The Internet operates across national borders, and efforts by the international community or by any one government to regulate its contents would be virtually impossible, both technologically and legally. In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the right of freedom of speech to all Americans, even those whose opinions are reprehensible by most people's standards. In a number of recent decisions, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed that the government may not regulate the content of Internet speech to an extent greater than it may regulate speech in more traditional areas of expression such as the print media, the broadcast media, or the public square. While courts may take into account the Internet's vast reach and accessibility, they must still approach attempts to censor or regulate speech online from a traditional constitutional framework.

Is there any kind of hate speech on the Internet that is not protected by the First Amendment?
The U.S. Constitution protects Internet speech that is merely critical, annoying, offensive, or demeaning. However, the First Amendment does not provide a shield for libelous speech or copyright infringement, nor does it protect certain speech that threatens or harasses other people. For example, an e-mail or a posting on a Web site that expresses a clear intention or threat by its author to commit an unlawful act against another specific person is likely to be actionable under criminal law. Persistent or pernicious harassment aimed at a specific individual is not protected if it inflicts or intends to inflict emotional or physical harm. To rise to this level, harassment on the Internet would have to consist of a "course of conduct" rather than a single isolated instance. A difficulty in enforcing laws against harassment is the ease of anonymous communication on the Internet. Using a service that provides almost complete anonymity, a bigot may repeatedly e-mail his or her victim without being readily identified.

Has anyone ever been successfully prosecuted in the United States for sending racist threats via e-mail?
There is legal precedent for such a prosecution. In 1998, a former student was sentenced to one year in prison for sending e-mail death threats to 60 Asian-American students at the University of California, Irvine. His e-mail was signed "Asian hater" and threatened that he would "make it my life career [sic] to find and kill everyone one [sic] of you personally." That same year, another California man pled guilty to Federal civil rights charges after he sent racist e-mail threats to dozens of Latinos throughout the country.

Has anyone ever been held liable in the United States for encouraging acts of violence on the World Wide Web?
Yes. In 1999, a coalition of groups opposed to abortion was ordered to pay over $100 million in damages for providing information for a Web site called "Nuremberg Files," a site which posed a threat to the safety of a number of doctors and clinic workers who perform abortions. The site posted photos of abortion providers, their home addresses, license plate numbers, and the names of their spouses and children. In three instances, after a doctor listed on the site was murdered, a line was drawn through his name. Although the site fell short of explicitly calling for an assault on doctors, the jury found that the information it contained amounted to a real threat of bodily harm.

Can hate crimes laws be used against hate on the Internet?
If a person's use of the Internet rises to the level of criminal conduct, it may subject the perpetrator to an enhanced sentence under a State's hate crime laws. Currently, 40 States and the District of Columbia have such laws in place. The criminal's sentence may be more severe if the prosecution can prove that he or she intentionally selected the victim based on his or her race, nationality, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. However, these laws do not apply to conduct or speech protected by the First Amendment.

Can commercial Internet Service Providers (ISPs) prevent the use of their services by extremists?
Yes. Commercial ISPs, such as America Online (AOL), may voluntarily agree to prohibit users from sending racist or bigoted messages over their services. Such prohibitions do not implicate First Amendment rights because they are entered into through private contracts and do not involve government action in any way. Once an ISP commits to such regulations, it must monitor the use of its service to ensure that the regulations are followed. If a violation does occur, the ISP should, as a contractual matter, take action to prevent it from happening again. For example, if a participant in a chat room engages in racist speech in violation of the "terms of service" of the ISP, his or her account could be cancelled, or the person could be forbidden from using the chat room in the future. ISPs should encourage users to report suspected violations to company representatives. The effectiveness of this remedy is limited, however. Any subscriber to an ISP who loses his or her account for violating that ISP's regulations may resume propagating hate by subsequently signing up with any of the dozens of more permissive ISPs in the marketplace.

How does the law in foreign countries differ from American law regarding hate on the Internet? Can an American citizen be subject to criminal charges abroad for sending or posting material that is illegal in other countries?
In most countries, hate speech does not receive the same constitutional protection as it does in the United States. In Germany, for example, it is illegal to promote Nazi ideology, and in many European countries, it is illegal to deny the reality of the Holocaust. Authorities in Denmark, France, Britain, Germany, and Canada have brought charges for crimes involving hate speech on the Internet. While national borders have little meaning in cyberspace, Internet users who export material that is illegal in some foreign countries may be subject to prosecution under certain circumstances. American citizens who post material on the Internet that is illegal in a foreign country could be prosecuted if they subjected themselves to the jurisdiction of that country or of another country whose extradition laws would allow for arrest and deportation. However, under American law, the United States will not extradite a person for engaging in a constitutionally protected activity even if that activity violates a criminal law elsewhere.

Can universities prevent the use of their computer services for the promotion of extremist views?
Because private universities are not agents of the government, they may forbid users from engaging in offensive speech using university equipment or university services; however, public universities, as agents of the government, must follow the First Amendment's prohibition against speech restrictions based on content or viewpoint. Nonetheless, public universities may promulgate content-neutral regulations that effectively prevent the use of school facilities or services by extremists. For example, a university may limit use of its computers and server to academic activities only. This would likely prevent a student from creating a racist Web site for propaganda purposes or from sending racist e-mail from his or her student e-mail account. One such policy -- at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana -- stipulates that its computer services are "provided in support of the educational, research and public service missions of the University and its use must be limited to those purposes." Universities depend on an atmosphere of academic freedom and uninhibited expression. Any decision to limit speech on a university campus -- even speech in cyberspace -- will inevitably affect this ideal. College administrators should confer with representatives from both the faculty and student body when implementing such policies.

May public schools and public libraries install filters on computer equipment available for public use?
The use of filters by public institutions, such as schools and libraries, has become a hotly contested issue that remains unresolved. At least one Federal court has ruled that a local library board may not require the use of filtering software on all library Internet computer terminals. A possible compromise for public libraries with multiple computers would be to allow unrestricted Internet use for adults, but to provide only supervised access for children. Courts have not ruled on the constitutionality of hate speech filters on public school library computers. However, given the broad free speech rights afforded to students by the First Amendment, it is unlikely that courts would allow school libraries to require filters on all computers available for student use.

What exactly are Internet "filters" and when is their use appropriate?
Filters are software that can be installed along with a Web browser to block access to certain Web sites that include inappropriate or offensive material. For example, parents may choose to install filters on their children's computers in order to prevent them from viewing sites that contain pornography or other problematic material. ADL has developed the HateFilter�, a filter that blocks access to Web sites that advocate hatred, bigotry, or violence towards Jews or other groups on the basis of their religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or other immutable characteristics. HateFilter�, which can be downloaded from ADL's Web site, contains a "redirect" feature that offers users who try to access a blocked site the chance to link directly to related ADL educational material. The voluntary use of filtering software in private institutions or by parents in the home does not violate the First Amendment because such use involves no government action. There are also some commercially marketed filters that focus on offensive words and phrases. Such filters, which are not site-based, are designed primarily to screen out obscene and pornographic material. [NOTE: For more information about the ADL HateFilter�, contact www.adl.org.]

Besides filters, what are some other ways that adults, especially parents, can protect children from the dangerous aspects of the Internet?
The fist and most important step is to help children understand that online hate exists. At the same time, help children recognize that as much as responsible citizens may abhor the fact that hate groups and hateful individuals use this medium to spread messages of bias, hatred, and disharmony, the U.S. Constitution protects their right to do so. This is an important lesson in democratic values. By no means do fair-minded people condone hate behavior, but this must be weighed against the importance of protecting free speech. Help children develop the critical thinking skills necessary to counter all of the hateful things that they will see and hear -- on the Internet as well as in other media -- with accurate knowledge and a commitment to respecting all people. Additional recommendations for helping children safely navigate the Internet include the following:

Talk with children about the dangers of the Internet before they begin using it. Tell children that not all of the information on the World Wide Web is accurate. Stress the importance of not revealing personal information to strangers over the Internet. Place computers in common areas so that what is on the screen can be easily seen by adults. Set clear rules and limits for Internet use. Carefully monitor children's use of chat rooms. Talk to children about their experiences on the Internet; ask them about sites that they are visiting for schoolwork or for personal enjoyment.

  • Encourage children to ask questions about what they see on the Internet.
  • Participate in children's Internet explorations by visiting and discussing Web sites together.
  • Expose children to Internet sites that enable them to create, to design, to invent, and to collaborate with children in other communities in ways that contribute to society in positive ways.
  • Become familiar with basic Internet technologies and keep up to date on the topic by reading resource publications.
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