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The Thin Line Between Hate Speech And Real Threat

Aug 7, 2012

The gunman who police say killed six people in a Sikh temple Sunday had long been on the radar of groups that track white supremacists. But law enforcement sources say they never had enough material to open a formal investigation into Wade Page.

The Army veteran accused of attacking the Wisconsin temple filled with strangers left an ugly trail that stretches back at least a dozen years — starting with the tattoos on his body. Page had a tattoo of a Celtic cross with the number 14 superimposed on it, says researcher Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. The number, he says, refers to this 14-word slogan: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children."

On the Internet, Page openly discussed his musical exploits in a string of bands with names like Intimidation One and Blue Eyed Devils. Potok says he found an interview Page did around the time he started another band called End Apathy — a band, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Page says is named "after his wish to figure out how to end people's apathetic ways" and to start "moving forward." Back then, Potok says, there was no hint that Page's words would translate into deadly actions.

"The reality is the government does monitor extremist websites and so on, but they are really not allowed to and should not be allowed to open criminal investigations of people who are merely exercising their First Amendment rights," Potok says.

The same issue came up in 2009, when an 88-year-old man with ties to neo-Nazi groups stormed the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and killed a guard. The attacker had published many online rants before the attack. The Constitution protects hateful and offensive speech, but not violence.

"One of the challenges for the police," says Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which advises police departments, "is distinguishing between legitimate free speech and then speech that may mean more than speech and things that may come from it."

The job of finding real threats has gotten a lot harder for law enforcement because there's so much speech, says Wexler.

"When you have the Internet and when you have so much communication these days, it's hard to distinguish between someone who's simply expressing their opinions about things and someone who may be troubled or someone who may be a real threat," he says.

Crossing The Line

For nearly 100 years, the Anti-Defamation League has been tracking groups that spout bigotry and hatred, often with more leeway to gather and file away information than law enforcement has.

"A lot of times we have information about a group because we've been reading their newspapers or looking at their websites or taking notes at their public rallies and that's perfectly constitutional activity," says Steve Freeman, the ADL's legal director. "And it's activity that enables us to basically function like an investigative journalist."

The ADL shares its findings with police or the FBI as the situation warrants.

The line is blurry, Freeman says, but he points to an example where doctors who perform abortions were targeted on "wanted" posters, their names blocked with an X if they had been killed.

"And that was construed as a true threat to the health and the life of the other doctors on the list, so it was more than just an expression," he says. "It was actually a threat."

What worries researchers and police the most are lone wolves — people who operate on the fringes of extremist groups — because their actions can be unpredictable.

"This man was like thousands of others on the white supremacist scene," Potok says. "He talked a lot about his enemies, he was full of anger, but he never to our knowledge crossed the line to criminal activity until this moment."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. We begin this hour with the line between hateful speech and hateful conduct. Police say Wade Michael Page shot and killed six people Sunday at a Sikh temple. That name was a familiar one to groups that track white supremacists, but law enforcement sources say they never had enough material on Page to open a formal investigation against him. NPR's Carrie Johnson begins our coverage.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The army veteran who attacked a Wisconsin temple filled with strangers left an ugly trail that stretches back at least a dozen years, starting with the tattoos on his body.

MARK POTOK: On his left shoulder, this man had a tattoo of a Celtic cross with the number 14 superimposed on it.

JOHNSON: Researcher Mark Potok says that number 14 means something to white supremacists because it refers to this 14 word slogan, quote, "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children." But let's put aside the tattoos. On the Internet, Wade Page openly discussed his musical exploits in a string of bands with names like Intimidation One and Blue-eyed Devils. Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, says he found an interview Page did around the time he started another band called End Apathy. Back then, there was no hint, Potok says, that Page's words would translate into deadly actions.

POTOK: You know, the reality is is that the government does monitor extremist websites and so on, but they are really not allowed to and should not be allowed to open criminal investigations of people who are merely exercising their First Amendment rights.

JOHNSON: The same issue came up in 2009 when an 88-year-old man with ties to neo-Nazi groups stormed the Holocaust museum in Washington, killing a guard. The man had published lots of online rantings before the attack. The U.S. Constitution protects hateful and offensive speech, but not violence. Chuck Wexler is executive director of a research group that advises police departments.

CHUCK WEXLER: One of the challenges for the police is distinguishing between legitimate free speech and then speech that may mean more than speech and things that may come from it.

JOHNSON: The job of finding real threats has gotten a lot harder for law enforcement, Wexler says, because there's so much speech.

WEXLER: When you have the Internet and when you have so much communication these days, it's hard to distinguish between someone who's simply expressing their opinions about things and someone who may be troubled or someone who may be a real threat.

JOHNSON: Steve Freeman is legal director at the Anti-defamation League. For nearly 100 years, the ADL has been tracking groups that spout bigotry and hatred, often with more leeway to gather and file away information than law enforcement.

STEVE FREEMAN: A lot of times we have information about a group because we've been reading their newspapers or looking at their websites or taking notes at their public rallies and that's perfectly constitutional activity.

JOHNSON: The line is blurry, Freeman says, but he points to an example where doctors who perform abortions were targeted on wanted posters, their names blocked with an X if they had been killed.

FREEMAN: And that was construed as a true threat to the health and the life of those other doctors on the list. So it was more than just an expression, it was actually a threat.

JOHNSON: What worries researchers and police the most are lone wolves, people who operate on the fringes of extremist groups because their actions can be unpredictable. Mark Potok...

POTOK: This man was like thousands of others on the white supremacist scene. He talked a lot about his enemies. He was full of anger, but he never, at least to our knowledge, crossed the line into criminal activity until this moment.

JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.