Police Dilemma Before WI Shooting: Distinguishing Free Speech, Real Threats


The gunman who police say killed six people in a Sikh temple Sunday had long been on the radar of groups that track white supremacists. Law enforcers never had enough material to open a formal investigation into Wade Page, says NPR. On the Internet, Page openly discussed his musical exploits in a string of bands with names like Intimidation One and Blue Eyed Devils. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center says there was no hint Page’s words would translate into deadly actions. “The reality is the government does monitor extremist websites and so on, but they are really not allowed to and should not be allowed to open criminal investigations of people who are merely exercising their First Amendment rights,” Potok says. “This man was like thousands of others on the white supremacist scene. He talked a lot about his enemies, he was full of anger, but he never to our knowledge crossed the line to criminal activity until this moment.”

“One of the challenges for the police,” says Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum, which advises police departments, “is distinguishing between legitimate free speech and then speech that may mean more than speech and things that may come from it.” The job of finding real threats has gotten a lot harder for law enforcement because there’s so much speech, says Wexler. “When you have the Internet and when you have so much communication these days, it’s hard to distinguish between someone who’s simply expressing their opinions about things and someone who may be troubled or someone who may be a real threat,” he says.

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