Chapter VII

Bomb Speech

This chapter begins with the description of a Web site, called Candyland, which offers up all kinds of useful information about hacking, drugs, phone phreaking, killing people with your bare hands, and bomb making. The Candyman posts the disclaimer that he just collects information and does not "endorse, nor check for the safety, or validity of the bomb making procedures. Makers of these devices take all responsibilty."

Most of the material on these pages is identical to what can be found in encyclopedias and printed government manuals (like the Blaster's Manual, published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture). Some of these recipes on the Candyman's site, however, are clearly designed to kill people. For instance, he posts instructions how to make small, powerful bombs out of household items, like the "toilet roll" bomb.

There are some politicians, parents, and special interest groups vociferously arguing against this kind of speech on the Net. Senator Diane Feinstein of California has introduced legislation that would make such information illegal. The Simon Weisenthal Center in Los Angeles is loudly pushing to ban a different, but related kind of material: hate speech.

Some speech is potentially harmful. But that same argument has been extended throughout history to ban all kinds of "false doctrine," "blasphemy," and political opposition. When the Founding Fathers created the First Amendment, they left the courts room to carve out only a few exceptions: obscenity, libel, or speech which is likely to cause immediate physical violence (e.g. screaming "fire" in a crowded theatre); otherwise, "Congress shall make no law" abridging the freedom of speech.

This means that they "shall make no law" against hateful information, or even the advocacy of hateful actions.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once coined the phrase, "free marketplace of ideas." In a free society which makes no laws against religion, beliefs, and speech, all ideas are allowed to roam free and battle it out. The idea is that this philosophy of free speech is the most basic right--upon which all other freedoms are predicated. We tolerate those who speak of hate and pass around information on how to kill, hoping that, in the end, the good ideas will win.

The issue here is not about bomb recipes or hate speech--just as the Communications Decency Act is not about pornography. It is about whether we carve any more exceptions out of the First Amendment. And if so, where is the line drawn, who gets to decide, and where do we stop...?

The seminal case with regards to "bomb speech" is Brandenburg v. Ohio. This case was not explicitly about bombs, but addressed the concept of advocacy. In this case in 1969, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a speaker at a Ku Klux Klan rally who said that the Klan might take some "revengence" if the government continued to "suppress the white Caucasian race." The Court held that the law may not forbid "advocacy of the use of force ... except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to produce such action."

If the same speaker had incited the crowd by waving a gun and called for them to attack someone's house, that kind of advocacy would have been clearly held to be illegal.

This potentially harmful kind of information does not fit within the clearly defined First Amendment exceptions such as libel, obscenity or threats. And drawing from the Brandenburg decision, it becomes apparent that pure information, such as a bomb recipe, does not fit within this definition of illegal advocacy of violence.

Many people, however, would gladly strip a few rights to keep society from knowing how to kill. Legally, they argue that it is an advocacy of violence and should be banned.

The Internet has created no real new kinds of content. It is simply a powerful medium that can bring to your screen everything that already exists with the click of a mouse. And now that everyone is beginning to see what is out there, many groups say it is high time to make laws and purge the world of certain types of speech.

Just bombs recipes, says Feinstein; just Neo-Nazi literature, says the Weisenthal Center; just smut, says Exon; just anything "indecent," says the Christian Coalition; just anything we don't want you to look at, says Singpore...

Recent Updates

Senator Feinstein introduced bill S.735 last year as a part of Clinton's CounterTerrorism Act, making it illegal to distribute bomb information "by any means" if the distributor knows or intends that the information will be used to commit a crime. It passed the Senate then bogged down in the more conservative house.

For the whole story, see Sex, Laws, and Cyberspace