Women's free speech is under attack

The threats and trolling women receive online silence them just as effectively as any censorship

Published August 13, 2013 11:45AM (EDT)

 Zerlina Maxwell, Caroline Criado-Perez  (FOX/BBC)
Zerlina Maxwell, Caroline Criado-Perez (FOX/BBC)

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).

To recap: 1) trolling, 2) doxing, 3) dos or Ddos attacks. Lather, rinse, repeat.

And repeat they do. Set up only nine years ago, in 2004, Encyclopedia Dramatica contains hundreds of entries documenting past and future victims of a “lollercoaster.” Writer Melissa McEwan, owner of Shakesville, a multi-author blog about feminism and intersectionality, is one of the targets. Her address and phone number are published and so are suggestions about how to troll her, ranging from emailing her penis pictures, to “revenge-raping her,” to targeting a Shakesville audience member who also owns a blog by extracting “their info from whois database, Facebook, or a phone book then proceed to raep.” (Rape, deliberately misspelled as “raep,” can mean a dos or Ddos attack.) In 2007, the Shakesville website, along with several other feminist blogs, was the subject of Ddos attacks – but the primary tool used to harass McEwan, year after year, is threats of sexual violence and death. At one point, McEwan says, Encyclopedia Dramatica “used to feature a campaign offering a financial reward to anyone who could offer proof of raping and/or murdering me.”

So the first and most easily sustained method in the lulz process is the online hate storm – like the one directed at McEwan for the last several years, or the most recent one directed at Caroline Criado-Perez for her successful petition to have Jane Austen's face put on the back of the UK's £10 note. After the Bank of England announced that, yes, Jane Austen's visage would grace the new bank note, Criado-Perez began receiving rape threats and death threats via Twitter – sometimes as many as 50 an hour. Criado-Perez told the BBC UK that she had “stumbled into a nest of men who co-ordinate attacks on women.”

“This is a systemic issue, the people doing this, this is their hobby, they just move from target to target, they're like a roaming gang of some kind,” explains developer and consultant Adria Richards. She has “screen shots and screen captures of places where they were organizing these attacks,” Richards says, and sure enough, “they have scripts, templates.” Six months ago, Richards was at the center of a full-spectrum campaign that started with trolling – rape threats, racial threats, death threats – and culminated in a Ddos attack that shut down her company's servers. Her employer, Send Grid, capitulated to the mob and fired her. Since then, “for safety reasons,” Richards has “been lying low.” Despite all of that, “one of the saddest things,” she says, “was when they found out I'm black and female and Jewish, on one forum, they were like, 'Is she Latino? 'Cuz I hate Latinos too.'”

“Clearly this is gendered and it has to do with the fact that I'm black,” says Zerlina Maxwell. “Because the rape threats I received are not the same as the rape threats and death threats Lindy West got. Mine had the N-word all over them.” In March, Maxwell was a commentator on Fox News' Hannity, and although she'd spoken on the show before without any significant social media backlash, after this appearance – probably because she'd talked about her experience being raped by someone she knew, disagreed that arming women with guns would be an effective way to reduce rape, and suggested that men should take some responsibility for ending it – she received a barrage of rape and death threats on Facebook, Twitter and by email.

“I view it as a silencing tactic,” says Maxwell about the campaign mounted against her. “I have a policy. I do not ignore ... 'Do not feed the trolls' is really easy for people to say when you're not getting 100 rape threats, when you're not getting 100 death threats.” Instead, Maxwell explains, “I am screen-grabbing, I am saving, I am posting, I am reporting this to the police if necessary.” She soon discovered, however, that “the law is not all the way caught up.”

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.

And indeed, the problem is bigger than the Heckler's Veto. Protesters and hecklers might succeed in drowning out a speaker – as they did to Webb and Firestone at the New Left Counter-Inaugural and attempted to do to Meredith and Valles at the Glasgow Ancients – but coordinated campaigns of trolling, doxing and Ddos attacks are explicitly designed not only to silence you, but also to embarrass you, scare you, harass you, get government agencies to investigate you, vandalize your property, make you move, get you fired, ruin your life.

And then, when the organized cells of misogynists and racists are finished with you, they simply move on to the next victim. “The part that makes me the saddest,” says Richards, who's no longer under active attack and is developing tools to protect people from this kind of abuse, “is ... that it's still happening to someone else. Whether it's for race or gender or sexual orientation, it's still happening.”

By Kelly Diels

Kelly Diels is a writer and the founder of Cleavage, an online magazine about the lines that shape us. Like her on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/CleavageByKellyDiels.

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Free Speech Heckler's Veto Internet Threats Trolling Women