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Hate-Crime Laws Threaten Our Liberty

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Recent front-page news stories about racist gunmen attacking innocent minorities in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas have led to calls for new federal hate-crime legislation, and for the expansion of hate-crime laws already on the books in many states. In short, these laws place additional penalties on those found guilty of committing a crime if the act was motivated by racism, sexism, homophobia, or other forms of bigotry.

To a nation purportedly committed to tolerance, the notion of such anti-hate crime legislation might, on first thought, seem like a good idea. But on closer inspection, hate-crime laws present real problems, in terms of both practical implementation and moral precedent.

Consider the supposedly simple matter of defining an act as motivated by hatred. By what standard is it determined that a negative opinion about a racial or ethnic group, for example, constitutes hatred? Is that determination made by a committee? If so, does that committee include adequate representation for the unpopular, allegedly bigoted viewpoint under scrutiny? Serious difficulties in objectivity arise when the classification of certain opinions is subjected to political consensus and majority rule.

Nazis and white supremacists are unpopular and generally despised by most Americans — and rightly so. Suppose a Nazi activist is peacefully demonstrating in support of white supremacy, in a public place near a predominantly minority community center. A person attending the community center who is a member of a racial minority becomes incensed at the actions of the Nazi. He assaults and brutally beats the Nazi. Police arrest the assailant and charge him with assault and battery. Should this be classified as a hate crime and thus be subjected to a more severe penalty? After all, the assault was motivated by a visceral hatred for Nazis and their beliefs. Or are there politically correct and incorrect forms of hatred?

Or take the matter of meting out penalties for hate crimes. How much greater should the penalty be for brutally beating an Asian immigrant than brutally beating, say, a four-year-old innocent child? By what standard is the proper penalty decided?

Consistency and public policy

A society that respects an individual’s right to life, liberty, and property is a society that recognizes the requirements for human prosperity and happiness. It is a realistic, practical, and moral society. If the goal of public policy is peace, prosperity, and happiness, then there can be no conflict between policy that is moral and policy that is practical. When a public policy creates practical dilemmas, that policy rests on an unsound moral foundation. Hate-crime laws fail to respect the rights to freedom of thought and freedom of speech. Therein lies the root of their practical inconsistencies.

When the penalty for a crime is conditioned by the opinions of the perpetrator, then certain opinions are in effect illegal. An action that violates the rights of others, such as physical assault or robbery, should be penalized by the criminal justice system. But philosophical or religious convictions are not infringements on the rights of others. While certain beliefs unfortunately may cause a person to decide to initiate force against another, it is only this initiation, and not the belief, that constitutes a violation of individual rights.

Everyone has the right to hold an opinion and peacefully express it. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was not ratified in order to protect noncontroversial speech. Such speech needs no protection. Yet it is controversial speech that is under assault when hate-crime laws are proposed.

The hate-crime laws already on the books generate numerous questions which threaten their practical implementation, and are likely to get bogged down with legal challenges. But more important than their practical consequences, these laws set a dangerous precedent and threaten the basic foundations on which a free society stands.

Meanwhile, ambitious politicians pander to constituencies who have been the victims of intolerance by advocating more hate-crime laws. They must be told, loud and clear, that hate-crime laws equal thought-crime laws.

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    Dr. Jeffrey Singer is a Phoenix-area surgeon who writes and lectures on regional and national public policy. He serves on the board of directors of the Goldwater Institute and is a contributor to Arizona Medicine, the journal of the Arizona Medical Association, and is a member of the Maimonides Society of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix.