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A little respect

The company-wide email network at CNET is usually reserved for such benign messages as notices that cars are being towed. Recently, however, a string of mail that made the rounds one morning bore an unusually passionate exchange.

The company-wide email network at CNET is usually reserved for such benign messages as notices that cars are being towed. Recently, however, a string of mail that made the rounds one morning bore an unusually passionate exchange.

The flurry of messages began with an apparent plea for a commercial boycott, not an unusual thing in San Francisco, a city whose political activism has become as clichéd as shots of the Golden Gate Bridge during halftime at a 49ers game. What was surprising, at least to me, was the response to that plea.

At issue was a cover story about the White House campaign contribution scandal in the National Review, a far-right magazine with a long tradition of controversy regarding race and other topics too sensitive for most publications. Last month, the Review drew protests over a cover illustration that depicted the president, the vice president, and the first lady with stereotypically Asian dress and physical characteristics (coolie hat, buck teeth, etc.).

Although no one rushed to the defense of the Review's political opinions, many did condemn the notion of stifling its right to say or illustrate anything it wished. The concept of absolute free speech is at least a few centuries old, but I was nonetheless startled by how quickly and unequivocally people rejected the idea of protesting the objectionable image.

As irresistible as the freedoms of the Internet often are, this discussion raises a difficult question: What is a reasonable price for those liberties?

Unlike its predecessors, this new medium forces us to test our First Amendment beliefs in the extreme. It's one thing to take a theoretical position that everyone should have the right to say anything he or she wants; but what happens when that freedom means the existence or even the encouragement of something so personally offensive as an attack on one's ethnicity?

That is precisely what America Online, for example, is weighing in a controversy over access to hate material through its networks. While it apparently has no constitutional obligation to protect free speech as a private company, AOL has refused to block out a Web site maintained by the Ku Klux Klan despite widespread objections.

Self-anointed cybervisionaries would have us believe that the Internet is our path to ultimate personal liberty, unencumbered by dreaded political correction and other trappings of previous generations that "just don't get it." But free speech isn't the only value that Americans hold dear.