Silicon Valley's Dysfunctional Attitude Toward Hate Speech

Silicon Valley's Dysfunctional Attitude Toward Hate Speech
AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, File

On January 30, 1989, an article appeared in the student-run Stanford Daily under the headline “Racial slurs cause University to shut down bulletin board.” The bulletin board in question, rec.humor.funny, was one of hundreds of so-called newsgroups—glorified mass e-mails organized around specific interests—that streamed onto the school's computer terminals via Usenet, an early precursor to today's Internet forums. Rec.humor.funny was conceived as a place to share jokes, many of them crude and off-color, and one in particular, the Daily explained, had caught the eye of Stanford's nascent I.T. department. Though decidedly stale and not nearly as offensive as some of the other material in the newsgroup, it relied on ethnic stereotypes: “A Jew and a Scotsman have dinner. At the end of the dinner the Scotsman is heard to say, ‘I'll pay.' The newspaper headline next morning says, ‘Jewish ventriloquist found dead in alley.' ” Upon reading those words, a student at M.I.T. had complained, and the attention had led a Canadian university to stop hosting rec.humor.funny. Eventually—most likely thanks to Usenet—word reached Stanford.

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