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Hate case raises Internet free speech issues

Surveillance November 9, 1997
Web posted at: 11:26 p.m. EST (0426 GMT)

From Correspondent Jim Hill

IRVINE, California (CNN) -- It was a hate crime that rocked the usually placid campus of the University of California at Irvine.

Authorities say their surveillance video captured Richard Machado e-mailing 60 Asian-American students:

"As you can see," the alleged message began, "I hate Asians, including you. I will hunt all of you down and kill you. I personally will make it my life career to find and kill every one of you personally."

vxtreme CNN's Jim Hill reports

As a result, Machado, a newly naturalized U.S. citizen from El Salvador, is being prosecuted -- a case that raises questions about how far free speech can be taken in cyberspace.

"If you threaten somebody's life in a way that a typical listener will think that you're serious, that's constitutionally unprotected," said Professor Eugene Volokh of the UCLA School of Law.

But in court papers, Machado's attorney, who declined an interview for this story, argued that the federal law being used to prosecute his client is, in effect, criminalizing e-mail.

And it's not as if the Internet wasn't already a rough-and-tumble marketplace for hate groups.

The Aryan Nation rants online about white supremacy, while opponents vow death to racists. Nazi art is advertised on some sites, while on others, Nazism is exposed. There's even the hate page of the week.

According to constitutional experts, all of this passes legal muster -- as long as it doesn't include a direct threat of violence.

"The constitution protects all sorts of opinions, really bad ones as well as really good ones -- communist advocacy, Nazi advocacy, bigoted, racist, sexist material -- all of that is constitutionally protected," Volokh said.

The case of Machado is one of the first tests of such issues in cyberspace, where millions of people with millions of opinions let their fingers do the talking.


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