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Online hate speech on trial

In a case that could break new ground regarding hate speech online, a Los Angeles man is on trial for sending a mass email that threatened Asians.

In a case that could break new ground regarding hate speech on the Internet, a Los Angeles man is standing trial for sending a mass email that denigrated and threatened Asians.

U.S. attorneys prosecuting the case say the venomous email clearly violated the civil rights of the 59 University of California at Irvine recipients, most of whom were Asian.

But federal attorneys defending Richard Machado argue the email was a "stupid prank" that Machado never intended to be taken seriously. To bolster their claim, they intend to call an expert witness who will testify that rash and inflammatory remarks are commonplace on the Internet.

The trial, which began yesterday, is likely to go to the Santa Ana federal jury by the end of the next week at the very latest. The outcome of the trial could presage how much weight courts will give to messages sent via email.

"Everyone agrees that the email was sent," said Dean Steward, the attorney in charge of the Santa Clara branch of the federal defender's office. "The question is the legal effect." Steward explained that threats made via email, which can be sent to hundreds of thousands of recipients, is different from one-on-one threats made through more traditional means such as the U.S. mail or the telephone.

"We're talking about an entirely new area that hasn't been litigated yet," Steward said.

The defense may have an uphill battle, however. In his email, which was sent from a UC Irvine computer lab in September 1996, Machado blames Asians for all crime on campus and he promises to "kill everyone [sic] of you personally" if they don't withdraw from the university.

Federal prosecutors allege in court papers that Machado "intentionally worded [the email] the way he did because he wanted to be specific enough to get a reaction and to get people angry." If convicted, Machado could spend ten years in prison.

Jeff Brown, who heads San Francisco's public defender's office, said Machado's attempt to draw a distinction between threats sent via the Internet was likely to fail. "The character of the speech is determined by what an objective person thinks it would mean," said Brown. "Just because it's on the Internet doesn't give you any special privileges or immunities."