Free Speech vs. Hate Speech

A recent spate of anti-Semitic incidents in the Bay Area reflects a larger, national debate over the definition of ‘hate’ and ‘hate speech.’

Based in Newport Beach, the Institute for Historical Review is an organization known for denying the Holocaust ever happened. (Photo by Eric Pratt)

At this very moment BART is running advertisements from a Holocaust-denial group at two San Francisco stations. Over in  Contra Costa County, an anti-Semitic Republican candidate for Congress just won his primary while claiming, “The Holocaust is a lie.” And five East Bay synagogues were recently plastered with Alex Jones InfoWars flyers depicting two hook-nosed Jewish caricatures and reading, “The Jews came for the Daily Stormer, and I said nothing … They are coming for your free speech next!”

These all seem like pretty obvious examples of hate speech. But in a post-truth world of “alternative facts,” the task of labeling hate speech and hate groups has fallen on civil rights advocates like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), institutions that now find themselves under siege with allegations of anti-conservative bias.

“We need to call out hatred of any sort, wherever we find it,” says Nancy Appel, senior associate regional director for the ADL Central Pacific Region here in San Francisco, defending their criteria.

According to the ADL’s Center on Extremism, there have been 22 extremist or anti-Semitic incidents in San Francisco alone in the last year — as opposed to only eight the year before.

“We have seen an uptick in anti-Semitic incidents, which would cover both violent and nonviolent incidents,” Appel tells SF Weekly. “Everything from workplace discrimination to actual crime. We’ve seen an uptick across the country, unfortunately.”

The “hate group” labels often applied to perpetrators of these incidents come from the civil rights organization Southern Poverty Law Center. Headquartered in Montgomery, Ala., the SPLC classifies these groups into specifically designated categories like Neo-Nazi, White Nationalist, Anti-LGBT, or Anti-Muslim.

The ADL uses somewhat different terminology. 

“We prefer the term ‘extremism’ or ‘extremist,’ ” Appel says. “It’s more precise and more encompassing.”

That specificity of language can be important. The SPLC paid a $3 million settlement in June to avoid a defamation lawsuit from an activist whom they’d labeled as Anti-Muslim, a case that conservatives used as definitive proof that these progressive civil rights groups had “lost all credibility” and were “smearing good people with false charges of bigotry.”

That’s why the ADL applies analytical and academic rigor in describing the extremist scene, and tries to be as precise as possible when using terms like “hate,” “movement,” “group,” or “ideology.” This is particularly challenging in the internet era, when messages are amplified through new media like YouTube videos, private Facebook groups, or swarms of bot accounts. 

“In years past, when you’re thinking of something like the Ku Klux Klan, there really were membership meetings, initiations, et cetera,” Appel explains. “But the situation is really much more fluid now. You can have a quote-unquote group that might be composed of just a few people. It falls apart relatively quickly.”

And extremist groups have become very shrewd at playing up any hate accusations as examples of censorship or anti-conservative bias. The recent Alex Jones ban whipped up that sentiment against Facebook, Google, and Twitter, but these tactics are also used against small local newspapers.

The free LGBT weekly Bay Area Reporter was hit with a cease-and-desist order last month from an attorney for the Proud Boys, an alt-right group the BAR described in an op-ed as “white supremacists” and “fascists.”

“This was definitely an attempt to intimidate the press,” BAR publisher Michael Yamashita tells SF Weekly. “We will not be intimidated.”

Yamashita notes that many press organizations are targeted this way, and the Proud Boys’ attorney often threatens legal action — but rarely follows through on the threat.

“We’ve heard nothing since we’ve received the letter demanding a retraction,” according to Yamashita. “Our attorney has advised us that we are not exposed to potential liability since the references to the Proud Boys appeared in an opinion column clearly labeled ‘commentary,’ and did not include any specific facts that were false or defamatory.”

But fringe groups have successfully tilted the discourse to pass off extremism as garden-variety conservatism. This moves the goalposts of standard conservatism in the direction of extremists, creating an environment where these alleged ‘hate groups’ are comfortable committing obvious acts of hate.

The ADL remains committed to documenting this demonstrable increase in targeted attacks on certain religions, ethnicities, and sexual identities.

“One of the reasons why we’re seeing it is because people are speaking out,” Appel says. “They’re recording these incidents, they’re speaking out on social media, they’re being covered more. That’s good. People need to talk about these things, so we can then deal with it.”

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