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House Hearing On White Nationalism Deteriorated Into Partisan Bickering


A congressional hearing on the rise of white nationalism spiraled into partisan bickering on Tuesday, offering a case study on the challenges to combating hate speech. NPR national security correspondent Hannah Allam has more.

HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: Members of the House Judiciary Committee opened the hearing with bipartisan condemnation of hate-fueled words and violence, the first and pretty much the last time Republicans and Democrats were in agreement. Next came three hours of finger-pointing. Every time Democrats talked about President Trump's anti-immigrant remarks, or how government agencies should do more to fight the spread of white nationalism, Republicans pivoted to criticism of identity politics, anti-Semitism on the left and off-topic foreign policy issues.

The sometimes-heated back and forth all but drowned out voices describing the human toll of extremism. Mohammad Abu-Salha, whose two daughters and son-in-law were gunned down in Chapel Hill, N.C., in 2015, reminded lawmakers of the stakes.


MOHAMMAD ABU-SALHA: What happened to our children was a home invasion and execution. Three beautiful young Americans were brutally murdered. And there's no question in our minds that this tragedy was borne of bigotry and hate.

ALLAM: One Republican, Representative Tom McClintock of California, brought up another facet of the debate, how to curb extremism online without infringing on free speech.


TOM MCCLINTOCK: Speech can be ugly, disgusting, hateful, prejudiced and alarming. But it can never be dangerous to a free society as long as men and women of goodwill have the freedom of speech to dispute it, challenge it and reject it.

ALLAM: Facebook and Google, which both had executives at the hearing, have tried to crack down on hateful content, but some free speech advocates are worried the gatekeeping veers too close to censorship. Neil Potts is Facebook's public policy director.


NEIL POTTS: Those are many of the issues that we wrestle with - to give people the ability to have a voice on a platform but also to balance safety. We err on the side of allowing more speech. We want to give people the voice, but we do have to draw a line somewhere.

ALLAM: The hearing itself provided a real-time example of the whack-a-mole nature of the challenge. YouTube streamed the session for just half an hour before disabling the live chat feature because it was flooded with racist and anti-Semitic comments.

Hannah Allam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hannah Allam is a Washington-based national security correspondent for NPR, focusing on homegrown extremism. Before joining NPR, she was a national correspondent at BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslims and other issues of race, religion and culture. Allam previously reported for McClatchy, spending a decade overseas as bureau chief in Baghdad during the Iraq war and in Cairo during the Arab Spring rebellions. She moved to Washington in 2012 to cover foreign policy, then in 2015 began a yearlong series documenting rising hostility toward Islam in America. Her coverage of Islam in the United States won three national religion reporting awards in 2018 and 2019. Allam was part of McClatchy teams that won an Overseas Press Club award for exposing death squads in Iraq and a Polk Award for reporting on the Syrian conflict. She was a 2009 Nieman fellow at Harvard and currently serves on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.