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Crime & Justice

How to combat the recent rise in antisemitic incidents in Austin

A sign says "No hate in the Lone Star State," with the Star of David.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
ATXKind held a "Rally for Kindness" at the Capitol on Nov. 14 in response to a recent spike in incidents of antisemitism, hate speech and racism.

Several antisemitic and racist incidents have taken place in Austin over the last month.

Hateful stickers have been placed in local parks, antisemitic banners were strung over a highway overpass, individuals have been doxxed online by a white supremacist group, and a fire was set to an Austin synagogue.

“This has been a trying and unsettling time in Austin, given all of these incidents,” said Renee Lafair, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks and responds to antisemitism in the U.S. “We're trying to build a community here based in support and not in division and hatred. I don't want to let those who try to disrupt us and unsettle us win.”

People have stepped up against these hateful acts, speaking out online and at public events. Local leaders and Austinites gathered at the state Capitol earlier this month to stand in solidarity against hate at a “Rally for Kindness.”

KUT spoke with Lafair and a free speech expert about what else can be done about these incidents.

What can you do if you see racist, antisemitic stickers or flyers around town?

Lafair says ADL Austin encourages people who see one of these stickers or flyers to take a picture and report it to 311 and to ADL.org/reportincident. Then remove the sticker or flyer.

“We collect the information because, as everyone knows, data drives policy,” she said. “So we collect data to look for trends, to see if there's anything or any coincidences or things that we need to know about to provide help to both researchers, policymakers and law enforcement on how best to handle these issues.”

Amy Kristin Sanders, an associate professor of journalism and law at UT Austin, also encourages people to notify the city of such incidents and take down stickers. In addition to calling 311, you can report incidents online.

“I think it’s really incumbent upon communities to step up and make sure that there is a groundswell of folks who are saying, ‘We don’t tolerate this kind of speech. We recognize that you have a right to say it, but you’re not welcome here,’” Sanders said.

Few kinds of speech are prohibited in the U.S. The First Amendment protects language many would consider racist and bigoted.

The language on these distributed materials may not itself be illegal, Sanders clarifies, unless it rises to the level of threats or fighting words, which are not protected by the Constitution.

“It would be very difficult for law enforcement to arrest and punish folks who are engaging in what I would call not-specifically targeted antisemitism,” Sanders said. “In Austin, we've seen examples of banners hanging from overpasses. That kind of speech, offensive as it may be, doesn't rise to the level of fighting words. And as a result, it's protected by the First Amendment.”

But putting stickers in public spaces or spray-painting a hateful message on a building is not protected.

“That's vandalism; that's not free speech,” Sanders said. “And so I do think that there are obligations that the city and the community should have in terms of removing stickers that are on public property and getting rid of those kinds of hateful messages whenever possible, because your First Amendment right to free speech is not absolute.”

What can you do if you are harassed by a hate group online?

KUT has seen reports of individuals who spoke out against the recent incidents being doxxed online by a white supremacist group. (KUT is choosing not to name the group.) Doxxing is when a person publicly discloses revealing information about someone, such as their name and where they live and work. This information is circulated online without the victim’s permission.

Lafair encourages people who have been targeted online to report such instances to ADL Austin, so the organization can send them resources. She also recommends visiting OnlineSOS.org, which offers advice on how to mitigate online harassment, including an action plan if doxxing happens to you.

Criminally prosecuting people for doxxing can be difficult, Sanders said. Oftentimes the person posting the information uses details that are already publicly available online — essentially just making available information more available.

“That's not to say it's not harmful, or to dismiss how threatening it can feel,” Sanders said, giving the example of revealing where a child attends school. “I can only imagine how difficult that would be for a parent. But is it criminal? I'm not sure that we would, in those kinds of circumstances, be able to successfully prosecute someone.”

That doesn’t mean a person who has been doxxed could never take legal action. For example, if private information, like sexual or health information, is posted publicly, the victim may be able to sue. A person may also have legal recourse if the online behavior rises to the level of harassment or stalking. But Sanders said doxxing often doesn’t fall into that kind of illegal conduct.

“There have been a number of states that have tried to take action against some of this uncivil online behavior,” she said, “and because of the breadth of the First Amendment's protections, most of these attempts to punish that kind of speech or criminalize that kind of behavior have been unsuccessful.”

Sanders encourages people to report doxxing and online harassment to the private companies running the websites where this kind of behavior is taking place. Though the government may not be able to restrict a person’s speech online, private companies, like Facebook and Twitter, can.

“I think it can be really powerful for individual users to report that kind of harassing behavior when it occurs on Twitter or Facebook, because those companies do have the ability to take action,” she said. “They have the ability to create spaces that are free from harassment.”

If a private company like a social media site is involved, Sanders said, people “have more room to act.” They can request the post be taken down, though that doesn’t guarantee the company will comply.

“The burden shouldn't fall on the person who's doxxed, but unfortunately it often does to try to find out where their information is and then to try to weed through the layers of whoever's hosting the website to ask that the content be taken down,” Sanders said. “I do think that many websites are responsive to those kinds of requests. But it's very difficult because of how the internet works and the ability to easily repost content in so many different places.”

What does the Austin Police Department say to do in these situations?

If you see stickers or flyers in public spaces promoting hate groups or racist messages, you can make a nonemergency report by calling 311 or reporting it at iReportAustin.com.

“After the reports are made, the reports will get routed to the appropriate unit to investigate,” an APD spokesperson told KUT via email.

If the situation is in progress (you see a person putting up the materials), APD says to call 911.

In a doxxing situation, if you feel there is an immediate threat to your safety, APD says to call 911. If there’s not an immediate threat, call 311 or visit iReportAustin.com.

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