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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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Legal consequences for organized campaigns of online harassment are more theoretical than practical. Dos and Ddos attacks are illegal, but unless they’re directed at a large organization (like AT&T, Paypal, Visa, MasterCard, Universal Music, Department of Justice and even the FBI) or related to a controversial, highly publicized crime (such the reaction of Anonymous to the Steubenville rape case), they’re unlikely to be investigated by authorities. Publishing a person’s private information to encourage stalking violates privacy statutes in most states, but even if victims succeed in tracing the identities of their anonymous attackers, they might not have the energy or resources to sue.

Then there’s the third tactic, trolling. “I have nothing but sympathy for women who are subject to this,” says Kaminer. “I have nothing but disdain, to put it mildly – contempt! – for the people who subject the women to this. The question is … Should the women have any legal recourse? If we’re not talking about the instances of vandalism or privacy violations, if we’re just talking about really hateful speech, then from my perspective, the women – the targets of this speech – only have legal recourse if you can characterize the speech as actual or true threats. And that becomes a very hard factual question, which depends not just on the language being used, but on the context.”

Unless police determine a message to be an actual threat, the content of the trolling – no matter how offensive or frightening – is speech protected by the First Amendment. For each of the three tactics used in organized campaigns of online intimidation, then, U.S. laws either offer de facto protection to aggressors or are rarely enforced to protect victims.

With legal recourse either unavailable or unenforceable, does the speech of trolls – online hecklers actively seeking to silence their targets – constitute a Heckler’s Veto? Kaminer says no. Trolling doesn’t interfere with articles and blog posts published online in the same way that a speaker can be silenced at a live event. Online, even when websites are bombarded with offensive comments or speakers are sent volumes of frightening messages, those communications don’t interfere with a person’s ability to publish a text or with an audience’s ability to read it. The words remain.

Except the words might not remain. In 2007, after receiving rape threats and death threats, tech blogger Kathy Sierra canceled her speaking engagements, moved house (her address had been published and messages and packages were being sent to her home), and stopped writing and blogging for six years. (One of Sierra’s tormentors was later revealed to be “Weev,” an online identity of Andrew Auernheimer, who was later arrested and sentenced to 41 months in prison for hacking AT&T’s customer data.) Writer Linda Grant told journalists  Vanessa Thorpe and Richard Rogers she quit writing her column for the Guardian because of “violent hate speech” that included anti-Semitism and misogyny. And just a few months ago, in June, Ms. Magazine canceled a series of blog posts by Heidi Yewman because it was unable to adequately moderate a trolling backlash that included attempts to publish Yewman’s home address. Ms. later reversed its position and reinstated the series, but the magazine’s first reaction is revealing. If a politically seasoned and professionally staffed organization with decades of experience confronting controversial issues can be destabilized by a trolling and lulz campaign, it’s not surprising that individual women quit, too.

“I’ve spoken to many women who simply stopped engaging,” says feminist activist and author Soraya Chemaly. “They don’t support other people online because they don’t want to be targeted, they’ve stopped writing about certain topics, they silence themselves – which is of course the issue.” She adds, “I’m happy to talk about free speech, it’s very dear to me [...] but the free speech we have to take care of first is the speech that is already lost,” because women are being intimidated off the Internet, out of public life and into silence.