Today in 1998: The first online hate crime conviction is returned

February 10, 2012

Today in Legal HistoryWhen the Internet rose to popularity in the mid-1990s, the legal system had a difficult time dealing with it.

That shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone, since the legal system is still having a difficult time with the Internet almost two decades later.

But back in its infancy, the Internet was far less regulated and monitored than it is now,  to the extent that there was very little or no guidance on how existing laws applied to activities on the Internet.

Thus, it was incredibly easy for someone to anonymously voice an opinion behind the safety of a computer screen that they would otherwise refrain from expressing.

While this led to an explosion of regular people expressing their views online, it also led to an upsurge in hate speech.

The problem was that authorities weren’t sure that they could prosecute such speech under current laws.

After Richard Machado was convicted of committing a hate crime 14 years ago today on February 10, 1998, authorities were a little less gun shy.

Machado’s conviction was the first involving a hate crime in cyberspace, and it demonstrated to law enforcement that speech conducted online was not insulated simply because it happened online.

The speech in question occurred on September 20, 1996.

The 19 year old Machado sent a threatening hate message to 59 specific Asian students at University of California Irvine (UCI) via email.

The message blamed the presence of Asian students on UCI’s campus as the reason why the school wasn’t more popular and claimed that they were responsible for all of the crimes on campus.

So far, the speech is indeed hateful, but is still protected by the First Amendment.

And if he would have left the message at that, he wouldn’t have been convicted.

Unfortunately, he repeatedly threatened to “hunt down” and “kill” the Asian students if they did not leave the school.

When he didn’t receive any responses within a few minutes, he resent the same email.

Machado, naturally, used a fake email account to send the message, and used one of the computers in the school’s computer lab, all so he could preserve his anonymity.

Shortly after receiving the message, several of the recipients complained to school officials, who were able to track the computer from which the emails were sent, and, using surveillance cameras, identified Machado as the sender.

The FBI got involved after Machado fled to Mexico in a car stolen from his roommate (he was apprehended upon his return to the U.S.).

In light of the absence of any laws relating directly to online speech such as this, the federal government had to get creative.

It used 18 U.S.C. § 245(b)(2)(A), a 1960s Civil Rights law that criminalizes race-based threats of violence against students at a public college.

As testament to the uphill battle the government faced in stepping into uncharted territory, the trial ended in a hung jury, and a retrial was held.

Before the second trial, the indictment count was reduced from ten to two (on a procedural challenge), and, although Machado was convicted on one count, the jury was deadlocked on the other.

That single conviction was all the government needed, though, and it didn’t seek a retrial on the other count.

Machado was sentenced to a one year prison term, but he was credited for time served, and wasn’t recommitted.

For the federal government, the conviction signaled the applicability of existing laws to online activities, and it proceeded to prosecute several other instances of online hate speech across the country.

As online activity has become increasingly prevalent among the general populace, it has become apparent that activities conducted online are not and should not be insulated from real-world laws.

Nevertheless, since the Internet today is still largely unregulated, the push to extend legal control over it remains.

However, there’s an important distinction to be made.

The regulation of, and exertion of legal control over, the Internet does not need to be imposed to enforce real-world legal consequences on virtual actions.

The case of Richard Machado demonstrates that.