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The Shocking Ways that Women's Free Speech Is Under Attack

Women who are in the least bit outspoken are subject to threats of rape, racist and sexist epithets, and deeply offensive trolling. How did it get this bad?
 
 
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When Rebecca Meredith took the stage in March at the Glasgow Ancients, an annual university debate tournament, she and her debate partner, Marlena Valles, were prepared for a little heckling. After all, Meredith is ranked the third top university debater in Europe in 2012 and Valles won best speaker in Scotland’s 2013 national championship, so between the two of them they’ve “beaten men in debates hundreds of times” and “can deal with heckles,” writes Meredith in the  Huffington Post. But even before the two debaters started speaking, a cadre of men in the audience began to boo, continued to boo throughout the debate, shouted “Shame, woman!” and “analysed their sexual attractiveness.” When a woman judge intervened,  reports Lucy Sheriff, the men called the judge “a frigid bitch.”

Feminist Marilyn Webb has a similar story. When she took the stage to speak at the New Left’s Counter-Inaugural, she tells Susan Faludi in the April edition of  the New Yorker, men in the audience immediately started shouting things like “Take her off the stage and fuck her!” and “Fuck her down the alley.” Author and activist Shulamith Firestone tried to speak after Webb, writes Faludi, “but was drowned out by a howl of sexual epithets.”

Legally speaking, “you can heckle a speaker but you can’t drown them out,” explains Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer, author and free speech advocate. Drowning out speakers or preventing them from speaking by threatening to create a violent reprisal is called “the Heckler’s Veto.” Considering the 2010 case of University of California students arrested for trying to prevent Karl Rove from speaking at a book-signing, Kaminer writes for the Atlantic that “protestors were not exercising their First Amendment rights so much as they were effectively restricting the rights of others.” Because they sought to use their heckler’s veto to silence a speaker, the speech of the students was no longer protected as free by the First Amendment.

The Heckler’s Veto is an ongoing concern for free speech advocates because it’s a live-action attempt to curtail the free speech of a public speaker – one that’s used time after time, year after year. The New Left Counter-Inaugural at which women speakers were heckled and drowned out, for example, took place in 1969. Rebecca Meredith’s experience with an attempted heckler’s veto (she and her partner went on to finish their debate) was in 2013.

Forty-four years. What’s changed?

Shortly after the Glasgow debate, Meredith received a text alerting her that “’Lad’ websites and male chat forums had posted pictures of me from news sites and discussed how best to violently rape or sexually assault me.” Comment after comment, she writes, discussed “whether it would be preferable to rape me using a knife, or to keep me as a sex slave.”

What’s changed in the last 40 years, then, is that now some men can heckle and drown out women not just in person but remotely, from the comfort of their own homes. The Heckler’s Veto hasn’t gone away, it’s gone online. Only now, it’s called trolling.

Encyclopedia Dramatica, a deliberately offensive wiki outlining the worldview and language of some of the people congregating in the forums and chat rooms of  4chan.org, defines “trolling” as “Internet Eugenics.” Trolling is designed to enrage and traumatize targets – especially women and minorities – so that they’ll go ahead and “leave the internet.”

Online campaigns designed to punish particular people are called “lulz,” the phonetic version of the acronym “LOL,” meaning laugh out loud, which describes both the systematic process for chasing people off the Internet as well as the result (maximum amusement!). Lulz has “standard operating procedures” and the first of those procedures is trolling, or leaving a large volume of offensive comments on a person’s blog and tweeting hateful messages to them. Trolling is both a signal and a threat. Shut up and get off the Internet, is the message, or there will be further consequences – such as the publication of your personal details (called “doxing”) so you can be harassed not just online but by phone and at your home, followed by denial of service (dos) attacks on your website or, if you’ve really infuriated them, distributed denial of service attacks (Ddos) against your host provider (which will crash not just your site but thousands of other sites also hosted by those servers).