A proposal for federal hate crime legislation is currently wending its way through Congress. H.R. 1592, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007, has already passed the House of Representatives, and is now pending in the Senate. Yet, in these over-heated and volatile times, broadening hate-crime laws is unwise. Such laws magnify and criminalize thoughtless, petty actions, exaggerating their importance, and prosecute those doing nothing more than exercising their personal opinions.
Some recent incidents demonstrate how this occurs.
Incident # 1
Before the fall semester of the 2006-2007 school year, an Ohio State University librarian selected four best-selling books as suitable reading for incoming freshman. They included David Kupelian’s “The Marketing of Evil,” which presents conservative viewpoints on homosexuality, abortion, teenage sex and other issues.
For merely suggesting a book with an alternative viewpoint, the librarian was accused of unprofessional conduct and of creating a hostile work environment. He was charged with sexual harassment for recommending a book that presented a traditional Christian view of homosexuality contrary to the view deemed “reflective” of the university on this issue. Although later cleared of any wrongdoing by the university, the librarian suffered the consequences of being publicly denounced as a “hatemonger” and “bigot” and the stress of pursuing legal remedies.
Incident # 2
A 14 year old middle schooler in Lewiston, Maine, in response to a dare by his friends, placed a bag containing a ham bone on the lunch table of a group of Somali Muslim students. Devout Muslims don’t eat pork and believe it to be unclean.
The middle school prankster was investigated by the Lewiston police as the perpetrator of a hate crime and the incident was deemed “extraordinarily hurtful and degrading” to Muslims by the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence at the University of Southern Maine.
Incident # 3
In 2002, two Australian pastors quoted directly from the Koran during their lecture on the differences between Christianity and Islam. The sections included passages directing Muslim men to beat their wives and admonishing Muslims to fight infidels into submission.
After three Muslims filed a complaint, the Australian pastors were convicted, ironically, under a state religions and racial tolerance act, of “vilifying” Muslims and inciting feelings of hatred toward them. Ultimately, the pastors endured death threats against themselves and family members. They were forced to absorb more than $500,000 in legal costs during five years of legal proceedings.
If we would like to see an increase in the severity and number of incidents like those described above, all we need do is pass H.R. 1592. Sponsored by Congressman John Conyers (MI-14), the bill identifies specific protected groups and prescribes heavier penalties for criminal acts against them than other, unspecified groups.
Conyers, who offers an Arabic translation of his web site, represents the largest Muslim, Arab-American community in the United States which includes Hamtramck, Dearborn and half of Detroit. In 2005, Conyers proposed H.R. 288, a resolution condemning bigotry and religious intolerance, which mentioned only the Koran and Islam specifically.
The case against hate crime legislation
The implementation of H.R. 1592 and, in fact, any hates crimes legislation is problematic for a multitude of reasons. The very term “hate crime” evokes connotations of thought control because it criminalizes individuals who harbor ill feelings or even moral disapproval toward a protected group. H.R. 1592 bans actual or perceived discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender, religion, national origin or disability. It thus creates specially protected groups and classes of people with special privileges beyond that provided in the Bill of Rights. It requires law enforcement and the justice system to give priority and stiffer sentences to prosecution of crimes that they believe are motivated by hatred against the specified groups.
Hate crimes laws undermine the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law and prohibits government from favoring any particular group. Hate crime laws do not treat all victims fairly and equally. Conceivably, penalties for assaulting a homosexual would be greater than that of assaulting an elderly person or a police officer. This flies in the face of the Bill of Rights’ provision for equal protection under the law.
Further, under this type of legislation, the OSU librarian could be prosecuted for offering books that opposed a homosexual lifestyle, but conversely, Christian students, a non-protected group, would have not be able to similarly claim sexual harassment if they objected to a showing of “Brokeback Mountain.”
Under H.R. 1592, it is also unclear which protected groups have precedence over other protected groups. Is the stoning of homosexuals justified under the sharia or Islamic law? Could harassment of gays be the privileged domain of a protected religion? Under H.R. 1592, how would this be decided and by whom? Which prejudices will qualify for special consideration under federal hate crimes legislation and how will this be decided?
In addition, hate crime legislation abridges the right to free speech and religious expression protected by the First Amendment and could lead to censorship. Statements by individuals regarding their beliefs and values are currently protected, but hate crime laws could end critical discussions and examination of religions and religious practices. It is conceivable that with the adoption of federal hate crimes legislation, the expression of religious values that uphold the protection of life and traditional family values could be judged as discriminatory and evidence of harassment of homosexuals. Meanwhile, the promotion of homosexuality to children and the glorification of the homosexual lifestyle could be legally sanctioned as a necessary policy for a protected group.
Clearly, deeming an individual’s thoughts and feelings – regardless of how intolerant or intolerable – as “illegal” has no place in a democratic society. The Bill of Rights as originally conceived contained no provisions that guaranteed certain Americans special privileges under the law or the right not to be offended by the words and actions of others. Under the scenario endorsed by hate crime legislation proponents, permission to criticize or disagree would be granted by governmental decree. We have adequate laws in place to prosecute people who commit actual crimes at varying levels of severity. We don’t need laws that criminalize thought, squelch dissent and discourage free debate.
In the words of Canadian columnist Lorne Gunter, “Hate-crimes laws are based on the fallacious premise that we may be punished for our thoughts and feelings, not just our actions. And insisting the state has the ability to look into our hearts and minds and adjust the contents is a very dangerous line to cross. It gives legislators, the courts, and human-rights tribunals far too much power to decide what emotions and beliefs are acceptable and, more ominously, which are not. Such power will inevitably be corrupted to the service of keeping legitimate opposition quiet.”
Continuing his argument, Gunter correctly concludes that hate crime legislation may initially be used against selective instances of perceived bigotry but could potentially expand to silence those with views contrary to prevailing special-interest groups and the fashions of political correctness.
 Lorne Gunter, “Hate Crimes Process Only Serves to Eventually Outlaw Oppression,” The Edmonton Journal, July 10, 2005, P. A-18.