A Killer Site

After AOL shut down a Web site devoted to the musings of serial killers, free speech advocates helped to rebuild the site and get it back up on the Web.

Published October 3, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

in 1964, Sondra London and Gerard John Schaefer were high school sweethearts. They explored the Florida Everglades, hung out on her grandma's porch swing and vacationed together. London's relatives adored him. But as young lovers often do, they eventually went their separate ways. In 1972, London learned that her ex was a convicted killer who had committed at least two murders, and perhaps many more.

In Feb. 1989, she wrote Schaefer a letter in prison, asking if he remembered her. "How could I not?" he immediately replied. They decided to collaborate on a book. In 1995 Schaefer died in his cell. London published their book, "Killer Fiction," posthumously, and created a Web site displaying an excerpt -- "The Serial Killer Who Loved Me," which was carried on America Online.

Three weeks ago, a friend forwarded a distressed e-mail message from London to me. "The Governor of Wyoming is trying to get AOL to terminate me," the message read. London's Web site contained information about three other serial killers, including nine documents written by Keith Hunter Jesperson -- the "Happy Face Killer" -- from an Oregon penitentiary. The governor wanted to extradite Jesperson to stand trial for a murder in Wyoming. On Sept. 4, the governor held a press conference saying he would "call on parents in Wyoming who are using America Online to discuss whether they can support a company that allows the promotion of torture, rape and murder."

Others would argue that the online documents provided some interesting insights into the mind of a serial killer. One included Jesperson's answer to the question, why did he kill people? "My father witnessed me throwing a cat against the pavement and then strangling it to death ... Instead of telling me it was wrong, he was kind of proud of the way I took care of it. He even bragged about the way I took care of the stray cats and dogs in our mobile home park." The "promotion" to which Gov. Geringer was likely referring was a 147-word rant titled "the self start serial killer kit."

There was no movement from AOL for over a week -- though the governor of South Carolina joined in the condemnation. Then, on Sept. 11, calls for a boycott came from victims' rights activist Marc Klaas, father of 12-year-old Polly Klaas who was kidnapped and murdered in California in 1993. Twenty-four hours later, as I was reading through the site's pages, the links went dead. AOL had closed the site.

But there was a second act. A roster of censorship foes volunteered their time and resources to resurrect the page. In a kind of Internet barn-raising last Thursday night -- as "Banned Books Week" drew to a close -- London announced that her site was back online, displaying the words "banned by AOL" and with a smiley face drawn by the "smiley face" killer at the bottom of the home page. "I was dismayed when AOL first banned my Web sites," said London, "but this experience has brought me into contact with some of the best and the brightest netizens in the cyberverse."

John Barlow, co-founder of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, had predicted as much, pointing out the day before AOL pulled London's site that Internet service providers would provide a new home for controversial pages "simply because some authority from the physical world has attempted to deny them one." Within days, London received 20 offers to take AOL's place. "It took me a week just to sift through all the offers and form the development team," London recalls. Ironically, the governor's actions triggered national coverage which ultimately resulted in a higher profile for the controversial site. Despite his attentions, London's page is back on the Web, "bigger and better than ever," she says.

Internet free speech advocates say the London case is an example of what they see as a disturbing new trend toward "soft" censorship. According to Ed Pechan, the general manager of London's new host Crosslink, large corporations like AOL "are subject to influence by pressure groups who are willing to sacrifice core values enjoyed by all Americans in order to suppress views held by others which may be distasteful." AOL insists the decision was the online service company's alone.

"We find the information that is in this site ... offensive and objectionable and we did not wish to have our name associated with it," an AOL spokesperson told the Associated Press. Yet a subscriber's page recruiting for the Texas Ku Klux Klan remains on AOL, five months after complaints from the Anti-Defamation League that AOL was not adhering to its own policy regarding "hate material."

The Klan page is still online. Apparently some content is more "offensive and objectionable" to AOL than others.

By David Cassel

David Cassel is an Oakland, Calif.-based freelance writer covering the Internet and popular culture.

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