In July 1981, a group of Vietnamese fishermen filed suit against the Ku Klux Klan in Texas. In a U.S. District Court in Houston, the fishermen claimed that their civil rights had been violated because the Klansmen, hell-bent on intimidating the Vietnamese out of Galveston Bay, had interfered with their right to make a living. The court agreed.
In her cover story, “Women Aren’t Welcome Here,” Amanda Hess writes about the vile threats and abusive comments that are anonymously lobbed at women online every day. Authorities and media figures often tell women to simply ignore these verbal assaults, arguing that they seldom result in “real” violence. But as Hess points out, the Web is real enough. “For a woman like me who lives alone,” she says, “the Internet isn’t a fun diversion—it is a necessary resource for work. ... Threats of rape, death, and stalking can overpower our emotional bandwidth, take up our time, and cost us money through legal fees, online protection services, and missed wages.”
Could a civil rights case be made in court by women against their online harassers? The roadblocks are significant.
Hess interviewed Danielle Citron, a research professor of law at the University of Maryland, who argues that the abuse of women online has come to look a lot like what the Texas courts ruled was unjust discrimination—the “intentional interference” with the fishermen’s basic right to make a living.
The Vietnamese fishermen in Texas won their claim because the Klansmen made what were considered serious and sustained physical threats, and they did so in person. Today harassers hide behind pseudonymous usernames (instead of, say, white robes). “But for the women they target,” Hess writes, “the attacks only compound the real fear, discomfort, and stress we experience in our daily lives.”
Could a civil rights case be made in court by women against their online harassers? The roadblocks are significant. Certain civil rights laws would have to be amended to include considerations of gender, and applying those laws would be a challenge. But the most historic expansions of civil rights—from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to laws against workplace sexual harassment—have always faced such obstacles. And both Citron and Hess are certain that what is happening today is a growing problem for all of society. “Our laws have always found a way to address new harms while balancing longstanding rights,” Hess writes, “even if they do it very slowly.”
“If there were stronger laws on the books,” Citron says, “perhaps they could at least provide the friction to give people pause to understand that their actions are socially unacceptable.”