Hate. Free speech. The Internet. The First Amendment. The passions and issues they incite all came together in, as a techie might say – a bundle – for one Young Scholars researcher.
Hate may be a four-letter word, and the “anger of the weak,” as French writer Alphonse Daudet described it, but Jonathon Stierman ’05 discovered its presence is extensive and growing stronger on the World Wide Web.
In the summer of 2004, Mahtomedi, Minn., resident and 2001 St. Thomas Academy graduate researched “Hate Speech and the Internet” through the Young Scholars summer program. The program is one of two faculty-student collaborative research programs sponsored by St. Thomas. Young Scholars provides $3,000 grants and summer housing, if needed. A second program, Collaborative Inquiry, provides students $1,000 grants for 10 weeks of research during spring semester.
“The Internet is now the biggest recruiter for hate groups in, I guess you could say, the world, certainly in our country,” said Dr. Mari Heltne, who, along with Dr. Kris Bunton, served as mentors to Stierman during the project. They co-teach an Aquinas Scholars Honors Program course that examines expressing hate on the Internet.
The trio approached the project from different angles. Heltne looked at it from her computer science and technological background, and with a personal interest in “why people hate.” Bunton, who teaches journalism and mass communication, looked at it from the standpoint of free speech. Stierman, a computer science major and journalism (public relations) minor, viewed it from both perspectives.
“They were awesome,” Stierman said of his mentorsto Stierman during the project. They co-teach an Aquinas Scholars Honors Program course that examines expressing hate on the Internet.
He estimated he devoted some 200 hours, June through August, to online research; in addition, the trio met weekly. They decided to look at the acceptable-use policies of various Internet service providers from the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States.
Stierman researched more than 100 Internet service providers (ISPs), a “long process.” He was interested in whether American ISPs are more tolerant because of the First Amendment. He found that they were, with most of the providers banning only “threatening or intimidating material.”
American free-speech protections have prompted a migration of foreign sites to American ISPs. “People from Germany and France, for instance, and other countries have started moving their Web sites over here because the whole European system is starting to regulate more tightly as to what content is acceptable,” Heltne noted.
“Neo-Nazis cannot host sites in Germany or in France. Denial of the Holocaust is against the law there, so those groups are coming over here.”
Stierman’s research was translated to the classroom in discussions about hate speech and the First Amendment. Heltne said that, at first, students favored rules prohibiting hate speech on the Internet – that “free speech isn’t worth it.” But as they continued their readings and discussions, the question arose: Who decides what is and is not hate speech?
“They realized that maybe that wasn’t the answer,” Heltne said. “Maybe the answer is to expose it and to expose the problems in our society rather than to try to regulate them out of existence, because that isn’t going to happen. It’s really interesting to watch the thought process.”
The trio enjoyed the faculty-student research experience. Bunton says it was fun, rewarding and a “great joy to participate. You never fail to learn something because the student approaches the topic differently than you would have, and yet you get to understand why he thinks that this is the way to do it or why she thinks this is the way. It’s great.”
As a bonus, the research also had practical applications for Stierman. He now deals with both marketing and technological aspects of Internet technology for Vivid Image, a Web-development and marketing company in Hutchinson, Minn., which hired him even before he graduated.