Hate Groups Thrive in Cyberspace

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Information is power. Which is why every group, from the local PTA to the national political parties, has rushed to gets its message publicized on the Internet. The dash to the Web has been joined by hate groups, and a report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center this week charges that hate organizations have been anything but lax in their efforts. Last year alone, the report says, the number of Internet hate sites increased by 56 percent, from 163 to 254.

"This is an outgrowth of the information age," says TIME writer Adam Cohen, "and in our society it is the price of the First Amendment right of free speech." It is a price that the courts may be increasingly asked to reevaluate, however. "When speech actively advocates violence," says Cohen, "there can be a finding of liability," as an Oregon federal jury determined earlier this month in the case of an antiabortion site called the Nuremberg Files. The proliferation of hate groups suggests that the nation may face a growing docket of such hate litigation -- and a new round of tests on how broad the nation's traditionally high tolerance of offensive speech should be in the age of cyber-publicity.