Traverse City Record-Eagle


January 21, 2013

Inside the First Amendment: Freezing websites not the way to protest

The Web-based protest group Anonymous is asking the White House to consider endorsing a kind of website attack as protected by the First Amendment.

The group claims the cyberattack tactic — which effectively freezes targeted Web pages for a time — should be protected as a new-age form of assembly and protest.

"Instead of a group of people standing outside a building to occupy the area, they are having their computer occupy a website to slow (or deny) service of that particular website for a short time," says a line in the posted petition on the White House site, "We the People."

Even so, the tactic more closely resembles the common definition of the "heckler's veto" than any application of the First Amendment's five freedoms. Shouting down a speaker in person, causing a sponsor to cancel a speech for fear of violence, or silencing a point of view electronically from a remote computer all achieve the same thing: preventing the free flow of information, and, in particular, the views someone opposes.

Any way you cut it, such a veto is the antithesis of the marketplace of ideas that is at the heart of freedom of expression.

"Distributed Denial of Service" attacks occur when multiple visitors repeatedly refresh a Web page, with the effect of temporarily preventing normal operations.

Supporters of the tactic and the petition note that it's transitory, eventually leaving the targeted site intact and operational. But speakers who are shouted down in person presumably live to speak again another day in another place. And in each case, you and I and an audience are denied information by a self-appointed entity that thinks — supposedly on our behalf — that we ought not to receive it. The First Amendment is in place to keep government from just becoming such a censor.

The petition was placed Jan. 7 on "We the People," a White House project that now contains more than 246 petitions on various subjects. It must receive 25,000 "signatures" by Feb. 6 just to gain an official review and response. As of Jan. 15, the petition had 4,600 signatures.

Admittedly, freezing a website for short a time is far less invasive than other kinds of cyberattacks that are becoming more common. A recent target of criticism by Anonymous was the Westboro Baptist Church, a family group from Topeka, Kan., over its threat to appear at funerals of those killed in the Newtown, Conn., school shootings.

Anonymous helped publicize another Web petition to have the church legally recognized as a hate group. But some Westboro opponents have gone further. News reports say the main website for the church and individual Twitter sites associated with the Fred Phelps family — the bulk of the church membership — were damaged or temporarily taken over by critics.

Widely publicized information about the Westboro-Phelps family and its hateful screeds against gays and various religious groups does not appear to have swelled the church's ranks or brought converts to their message in any great numbers. Instead, more news about the group has produced counter-demonstrators and measurable national revulsion against both Westboro's message and its methods.

Censorship — however fleeting and however it's done — is not proper response to the folks from Westboro.

Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn., 37212; on the web at; by email at

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