Attracting fans from the far right and simply the curious, their messages condemned prominent politicians and federal programs, warned of gun control conspiracies, and even propagated racial hatred. Some messages warned that the Peace Corps is “an anti-American brainwashing operation” and condemned new curriculum standards as “a tragic plan to destroy the American intellect.” And even as they were denounced by Congress and editorial pages around the country, regulators and telecom companies said there was little they could do to silence the messages, since they were neither obscene nor defamatory to any particular person.
Today, incendiary commentary and conspiracy theories routinely capture and appall audiences on platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, leading to arguments over responsibility and free speech. But decades ago, similar debates played out over content that was delivered via the cutting-edge communication medium of the day: the telephone.
Starting in the early 1960s, tape recorders connected to phone lines around the country played political messages to anyone willing to spare a couple of minutes and the cost of a local call. Word of such services spread quickly by word of mouth and through printed advertisements, and the worst of the messages quickly earned the nickname “dial-a-hate,” a takeoff on more innocuous phone services such as “dial-a-prayer.”
Now largely forgotten, such phone services were deployed for years by extremist groups, like a Connecticut branch of the National Socialist White People’s Party, which used them to call for “a total geographical separation of the races,” and a Texas arm of the Ku Klux Klan, which in 1977 sought “the extermination of gays and the ambush killing of liberal court judges,” according to contemporary newspaper reports. A Philadelphia neo-Nazi group claimed its white supremacist messages received 3,800 calls per week, said one 1973 wire story.
While AT&T and its affiliates instituted a policy in the mid-1960s requiring operators of recorded messages to identify themselves, phone companies and regulators said that generally there was little that could be done to silence the recordings under existing laws.
“It is neither proper nor fair that a private corporation be charged with the sole responsibility for policing their facilities when, through technological advances, those facilities have been transformed into a new method of mass communications akin to radio broadcasting,” Senator Gale McGee, a Wyoming Democrat, said in a 1965 hearing on the messages. “We must set the public policy.”
Decades later, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg would express similar views about his company being in charge of policing hate speech on its platform.
“What I would really like to do is find a way to get our policies set in a way that reflects the values of the community, so I am not the one making those decisions,” Zuckerberg told Recode in a recent interview. “I feel fundamentally uncomfortable sitting here in California in an office making content policy decisions for people around the world.”
Among the first to see the power of voice recordings for spreading conservative messages was William Campbell Douglass II, a Sarasota, Florida, physician and activist. Douglass, who died in 2015, would later gain attention as the author of contrarian medical books with titles like Eat Your Cholesterol, The Health Benefits of Tobacco, and The Milk of Human Kindness Is Not Pasteurized. But during the 1960s, Douglass was best known as the creator of Let Freedom Ring, a nationwide network of conservative phone lines denouncing purported enemies of freedom around the country.
Dozens of affiliates around the country paid Douglass $24 per year (about $186 in today’s money) for scripts that they would read into their own tape equipment, making Douglass’s material available to local listeners, so they could avoid paying then hefty long-distance charges.
Among the local hosts of Let Freedom Ring in 1967 was Lester Maddox, the segregationist businessman who would go on to become governor of Georgia. Others were less well-known nationally: A 1967 article in The Sheboygan Press on the Let Freedom Ring line in that city mentioned the local line was maintained by a 20-year-old conservative and the 54-year-old pastor of a local church. (When contacted by Fast Company, Douglass’s son, William Campbell Douglass III, said he’s not aware of any surviving recordings of the messages.)
Let Freedom Ring was unafraid to condemn influential organizations or presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Lyndon B. Johnson. One of the services’s messages slammed the American Legion for carrying ads from a cigarette company alleged to source tobacco from behind the Iron Curtain. In another missive, Douglass warned of “compulsory gun registration and then eventual seizure of all registered weapons,” as part of a plan by traitors in the Johnson administration to place “America under the heel of a U.N. military junta,” according to a 1966 profile in the Palm Beach Post.
In an open letter to the Federal Communications Commission sent in 1965, a lawyer for the National Council of Churches warned of the “cancerous” spread of the Let Freedom Ring messages, enabled by the novel distribution system.
“In addition, the broadcast is delivered so rapidly in the space of two minutes that persons and groups defamed have the greatest difficulty in knowing of it and authenticating its text until the stab in the back has occurred and its effects are established in the public mind,” wrote attorney Charles H. Tuttle. “If such practices as Let Freedom Ring can take root as accepted in the United States, no one is secure, and government has defaulted in its primary duty of protecting its citizens.”
A 1965 Time-Life editorial broadcast on the media company’s Indianapolis stations also denounced the recordings:
[T]here is one fundamental law that the dial-a-hate-message people have broken, and for which they can offer no excuse. In the name of freedom, they disregard the truth. And truth, above all else, is what makes possible our American way of life. Democracy could not long survive on a diet of half-truth and vicious innuendo. Neither can the foolish, irresponsible impressions of the freedom ringers long exist in the glaring light of truth.
Still, fans and local station operators described Let Freedom Ring as a welcome answer to perceived liberal media bias.
“For this reason, Let Freedom Ring was started to combat the growing threat that threatens to engulf us all in slavery,” said Jerry Steinhardt, who ran the Appleton, Wisconsin, line, in a 1966 release picked up by the Oshkosh Northwestern. “As Abraham Lincoln stated over 100 years ago, ‘Let the people know the facts and the country will be saved,'” he said.
Either way, federal and local officials, stymied by First Amendment concerns and the lack of existing telecommunications laws or precedent addressing the issue, proved unable to regulate the messages from Douglass’s network, or even from overtly racist phone services.
“We are completely protected,” Dick Bierderman, a then 21-year-old neo-Nazi operating a Philadelphia dial-in line told a wire reporter in 1973. “The Constitution guarantees us freedom of speech.”
Connecticut officials in the mid-1970s were able to briefly order the takedown of the Connecticut white supremacist message, until a court ruled that a state law banning racist advertising didn’t apply to the telephone service.
“The best legal minds of both past and present have as yet failed to find a way to curb offensive speech without also curbing an essential freedom,” according to a Hartford Courant editorial at the time. “This problem has most often arisen with respect to obscenity, but the hate messages presented a similar situation.”
It’s also a familiar pattern with new communication tools, from the printing press to radio to social media, says Robert Horwitz, a professor in the University of California, San Diego’s communication department. People first celebrate the technology for making it easier than ever to communicate and share ideas, then lament how the technology is used to propagate hateful and distasteful messages.
“Every new communication technology has its moment where people say, ‘Oh wow, this gives the little guy the ability to talk truth to power,'” says Horwitz. “And then, of course, what happens is the bad people use it, too.”
Douglass’s Let Freedom Ring, which Jacob Javits, the New York Republican senator, described as a “push-button approach to mass libel,” was both denounced and lampooned in newspapers around the country. Douglass doesn’t appear to have engaged in the vicious racial attacks of some of his contemporaries, but he did fervently back Alabama governor and segregationist icon George Wallace’s 1968 bid for the presidency.
The Palm Beach Post commented on Douglass’s Hugh Hefner-like appearance and called him “quick with a friendly smile” and “witty in conversation,” but he didn’t always shy away from violent rhetoric or radical gestures. Douglass battled unsuccessfully for years against the federal income tax, arguing in court that the levy was unconstitutional, and that conciliatory Cold War policies made paying it tantamount to treason.
And in an open letter to the president of the Daughters of the American Revolution, commending the group for standing against a planned Joan Baez performance at the Washington Monument, he suggested the popular folk singer should be tried for sedition and, if guilty, put to death. “I think that anyone who preaches sedition should be arrested, given a prompt jury trial and, if convicted, shot,” he wrote in 1967. “This would include, of course, the above mentioned J. Baez if so convicted.”
Opponents of the right-wing phone services generally took a less strident tone, with even some groups that had been condemned by the services often defending their right to be heard. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, would be denounced by phone messages including from Let Freedom Ring, but the group’s Connecticut affiliate would later defend a local neo-Nazi group’s right to operate such a line. And in 1973, an aide to Pennsylvania Congressman Joshua Eilberg told a wire reporter that “scum like this is the price we pay for democracy.”
At least some of the services would shut down not because of public opposition but, apparently, because of the sheer expense. Even though they won in court, the organizers of the Connecticut neo-Nazi line reportedly shut the service down in 1975 after running out of money. The Sheboygan organizers reportedly spent $37 a month (or $277 in today’s dollars), on phone service and scripts from Douglass.
The AT&T requirement that operators of the services identify themselves may have dissuaded others: Douglass told the Palm Beach Post that running the service likely cost him thousands of dollars a year in lost medical business and predicted the ID requirement could cost his affiliates their jobs.
Ultimately, far-right dial-in lines would ultimately give way to other forms of troop rallying, just as other phone services that serve callers the time of day, traffic information, or messages from celebrities have given way to newer, more efficient modes of communication. Kenneth Stern, executive director of the Justus and Karin Rosenberg Foundation, which organizes to combat hate and anti-Semitism, recalls right-wing extremists sharing messages through fax machines and digital bulletin board systems before they took to the modern web and social media.
“The difference in terms of the internet is, it’s much more immediate and it’s easier for people to access, and it’s much quicker,” Stern says. “So it sort of feeds into the capacity of conspiracy theories and rumors, which are very much a part of extremist, hateful thinking.”
Now, too, there’s only so much U.S. laws or tech providers have been able to do to regulate hateful, incendiary, or false speech online. Courts have ruled from the early days of the web that the First Amendment aggressively protects online speech. And while tech companies have recently gotten more aggressive about moderating hate speech and false information, they’ve often failed to control blatantly abusive posts or stop incorrect and hateful messages from going viral.
Still, Stern, who says he is a “firm believer in free speech and the First Amendment,” says he’s more concerned with people being drawn to hate movements by rhetoric from prominent political figures than with extremist online discourse.
“I think it makes it easier for people to see,” he says of the internet. “But I’m much less concerned with that than with some of the things that are happening outside that are driving people to these ideas.”