Commentary: State Hate Crime Laws Need Change

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, June 1, 2006

There are few things more unsettling than racial epithets or other hate speech being screamed at someone.  Taunts aimed at a person’s sexual orientation, religion, or race, are nauseating and frightening.  That being said, it’s still speech.  And our free speech rights need to protect even the most disgusting of views.  California law adds extra punishment when violence is motivated by racial, religious or sexual hatred. 
But a recent change in the law makes a person liable for hate speech when there’s no violence -- it all comes down to whether the other person reasonably believes they’re being threatened.  Even though I hate the views of racists and homophobes, it’s disturbing that identical actions earn different punishment depending on the beliefs of the perpetrator.  It feels like a slippery slope toward official government views and banned beliefs. 
Example:  A man on skid row pounds his fist menacingly and says to someone passing by in a suit and tie, “hey, you deserve this, don’t you?”  There’s no violence, and no liability.  But if the threatening man had said, “you whites deserve this,” or “you Christians deserve this,” that’s against the new law.  The beliefs behind the threat make the difference, not the threat itself.Discouraging racial and religious and sexual violence is a noble thing.  But it can be done through punishing violence itself, or threats, without punishing the views