Just where do you draw the line on free speech?
And how do you enforce it if the offensive material is on the Internet, where jurisdiction isn't defined by nice, neat, geo-political borders?
It's a problem the Canadian Human Rights Commission is mulling after hearing testimony concerning hatemonger Ernst Zundel's website, which is running from a server in California, and an issue that pushed its way to the forefront again this week as proponents of free speech and anti-racist forces clash in Oliver, B.C., over a local Internet service provider's hosting of similar material.
The Zundel case will likely end up at the Supreme Court of Canada, regardless of the HRC decision this spring. Meanwhile, the tiny berg of Oliver has become the new focus on this supercharged issue.
Hate literature, whether printed or in cyberspace, is illegal, says Sol Littman of the Canadian arm of the Simon Weisenthal Centre. Littman is lobbying the attorney general of British Columbia to shut down Bernard Klatt's ISP business in Oliver because it hosts anti-semetic websites.
Littman sparked a huge outcry when he labelled Oliver the "hate capital of Canada" in a letter to the provincial attorney general last January.
"Words are the first stage of violence", said Littman. "They can be used to dehumanize people."
But Electronic Frontier Canada says Littman's campaign is one step down a slippery path.
"The fact is, there is no RCMP investigation and the attorney general of B.C. has no jurisdiction to shut down the ISP hosting the sites", said David Jones of EFF Canada, who has followed the issue for the past 18 months and seethes with anger at the thought of what he sees as censorship and government intervention in cyberspace.
B.C. Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh also recognizes his own impotence.
"(Current laws) are obsolete, they're ancient, they're unenforceable, they're weak, and as a result they make us weak", Dosanjh said at an anti-racism rally last weekend. "I want Ottawa to give me a new law, to give you a new law, so that we can eliminate this evil from British Columbia once and for all."
That's exactly what Jones and other anti-censorship groups don't want, even though it means getting in bed with some sordid company.
The quirky weirdos at the centre of the controversy, of course, have milked it for all it's worth, wrapping themselves in the flag of free speech and rallying support for Klatt and his Fairview Technology Centres, portraying him as a businessman standing up to the politically correct.
The story has everything going for it: Free speech, money and the opportunity to act as a Trojan horse to advance extremists' messages and, in passing, recruit more believers to the cause.
Even the Ku Klux Klan has weighed in, urging its members to sign an online petition supporting Klatt.
The issue heated up last weekend when a meeting ostensibly to whip up a frenzy over the free speech issue was cancelled when the mayor of Oliver pulled Klatt's permit to use the town hall, citing safety concerns as extremists on both sides of the issue converged on the small town.
Win or lose, Littman doesn't think he's going to stamp out racism or even control the Net.
"It will always be there", he said. "But the world of the ISPs are changing, they're becoming bigger and more corporate and they won't go for this. It'll be easier when the smaller ISPs are gone."
And that's the truly awkward part for cyber freedom proponents like Jones. The whole point of the Net is that it is a free and unfettered world, a chaotic place where there is an interchange of ideas, a world where everyone has the power of publication once reserved only for press barons and media tycoons.
You may not like the ideas or images presented there, but those offended are free to surf elsewhere.
Once governments and self-appointed groups start sanitizing the Web, it is in danger of collapse and of being reduced to the trivial, like so much television, controlled by a few global corporations with their own set agendas.
Rants by those like Zundel may be distasteful, says Jones, but they are the price of freedom, and by extension the price of admission to the Net.