Groups accused of supporting hate speech find platforms online

They see it as a question of freedom of speech, while others disagree.

ByABC News
January 29, 2018, 5:02 AM

— -- Tom Kawczynski was voted out of his job as a town manager of a small community in Maine because of what many viewed as racist ideas promoted by a group he started.

And then he got shunned from crowdfunding sites too.

"After my firing without cause from the position as town manager in Jackman, I have gone out to seek help to sustain myself and my wife," Kawczynski told ABC News.

"The challenge that we've run in to is that many fundraising sites, because of the inaccurate characterization of my views, have deemed that what I'm trying to promote is a violation of my terms of service," he said.

Town Manager Tom Kawczynski sits in the Jackman, Maine, town hall, Jan. 23, 2018, before a select board meeting over his publicly espoused white separatist views.
Jake Bleiberg/The Bangor Daily News via AP

His group, called New Albion, focuses on "defending the people and culture of New England," according to their site, and he told the Portland Press Herald that he opposes Islam because it is "not compatible with Western culture."

Though he denies being a racist or bigot, a spokesperson for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, told ABC News that his opinions qualify as "white nationalist views."

Kawczynski told ABC he launched a GoFundMe page following his dismissal but "the same day I posted it up it was taken down."

While not directly addressing Kawczynski and his fundraiser, GoFundMe spokesperson Bobby Whithorne told ABC News in a statement that "White nationalists and neo-Nazis cannot use GoFundMe to promote hatred, racism, or intolerance, and if a campaign violates GoFundMe’s terms of service, we’ll remove it from the platform."

In Kawczynski's case, he turned to a different site called FreeStartr, which bills itself as "Free speech crowdfunding."

The site, which did not respond to ABC News' requests for comment, is run by CEO Charles C. Johnson, a controversial figure who describes himself as an "investigative journalist" who touts his ban from Twitter.

People participate in a "White Lives Matter" rally in Shelbyville, Tenn., Oct. 28, 2017.
Stephanie Keith/Reuters

In Freestartr's community guidelines, in a section labeled "Hate Speech" it reads: "Do not hate on individuals or groups, including on account of their sex, height, race, religion, lack of religion, sexual preferences or—wait, of course we’re kidding. There is no such thing as prohibited hate speech. It’s a term that censorship advocates have invented to justify their censorship."

Gene Policinski, the president of the Newseum Institute which includes the First Amendment Center, concurred that "hate speech is not a particular legal term."

"One person's hate speech is another person's patriotic language," Policinski told ABC News.

"The First Amendment does not protect us against the ramifications of our speech. It protects us against the government censoring or punishing us for our speech. It doesn't protect us from the consequence of our speech with regards to our neighbors or ... our employer," he said.

Another site that has turned into a meeting ground for those who aren't allowed elsewhere is Gab, a microblogging site structurally similar to Twitter but different in that it has not been allowed to distribute its apps through either the Apple App Store or the Android store.

"Users are able to essentially connect with people around the world with a guaranteed right of free speech," Gab COO Utsav Sanduja told ABC News. An Apple spokesperson told ABC News that they have guidelines in place to prevent content that allows for hate speech to appear in the app store.

A screenshot from Gab is seen here.

Sanduja said that they were rejected from the App store "on the basis [of] Gab being quote unquote 'a hate speech, mean-spirited site' which we found ludicrous."

The characterization did not sound ludicrous to Oren Segal, the director of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism.

"A platform can be defined by what it allows just as much as by what it disallows. Gab allows for unrestricted hateful rhetoric without consequences. That is attracting users who hold extremist views. Indeed, extremists know Gab is a safe space for them and are telling others to find them there when they are booted off of other platforms," Segal told ABC News.

Twitter, by contrast, states in their rules and policies that "we do not tolerate behavior that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another person’s voice," and goes on to state that users "may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease. We also do not allow accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm towards others on the basis of these categories."

Such stipulations are well within the company's rights, Policinski said, noting that "private enterprises are not bound by the First Amendment."

The stipulations that ban hate speech and allow users to be booted from platforms as a result has repercussions online, and in person.

"If you tell people that you've very clearly defined that they can't have a seat at the table, they will find their own places to congregate," Kawczynski said, referencing the online forums that are more permitting of certain speech.

"I think that actually encourages radicalism and extremism because they have no means of expression save through those venues," he said.

Segal believes that could lead to repercussions off line as well.

"When white supremacist or other extremists are able to easily find like-minded sympathizers that glorify vile hatred without any consequences, it can have an empowering effect on them," Segal told ABC News.

"It is not unreasonable for people to be concerned about online spaces that cater to the type of hatred we have seen lead to violence," he said.