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The big chill

"The big chill" Continued...

Issue: "Do the math," Nov. 7, 2009

The United States established its first federal hate crime laws in 1994, levying harsher sentences on perpetrators of violent crimes based on race, religion, or gender (and now sexual orientation). In theory these crimes deserve higher punishment because the racially motivated murder of an African-American isn't just a murder-it's a threat to the entire African-American community. But there's still debate over whether crimes with different motives should get different sentences.

"To murder is to murder is to murder," Malek said. "I don't personally think that the motive of hate is worse than sadism."

Racial hate crimes were the basis for the Victoria law in Australia that brought Scot to court. Jewish groups were pushing for heightened protection, according to Durie, and because Jewish ethnicity and religion are intertwined, that heightened protection included protection against religious incitement of hate. A Christian's speech about Islam, which ended up being covered by the law, was not the driving reason for the law.

In the United States, too, the expanded laws were not targeted at speech, but chilled speech may be the effect. Gay groups have pushed for protections in expanded hate crime laws-which now cover violent crimes motivated by the victim's sexual orientation. But Congress didn't just add the words "sexual orientation" to current hate crime laws; it expanded the laws to allow additional evidence of bias in hate crimes.

The Muslim community is typically at loggerheads with gay advocacy efforts-most Muslims supported Proposition 8 in California, for instance-but the two camps were allies on this initiative. The Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), one of the principal Muslim advocacy groups in the United States, applauded Congress for extending "broader federal interventions in hate crimes investigations," sentiments that gay advocacy groups like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) echoed. Neither CAIR nor HRC returned requests for comment.

CAIR has increasingly called for prosecution of hate crimes, citing an uptick in crimes against Muslims. In June, CAIR urged law enforcement to investigate a "bias motive" when a student beat his 14-year-old Muslim classmate. In August, CAIR demanded federal hate crime charges in a case of two men allegedly beating a cab driver and calling him a terrorist during the attack. In September, the organization called on law enforcement to investigate a "bias motive" in a shooting at a Maine mosque.

And when Act! America set up a lecture on extreme Islam, CAIR's spokesman Ibrahim Hooper wrote in a statement that because they are "strong defenders of the First Amendment" they wouldn't ask for the event to be canceled-but they did ask for the San Diego Public Library hosting the event to withdraw its sponsorship.

"No library would-or should-sponsor a lecture by an anti-Semitic, racist or neo-Nazi speaker," said Hooper in the statement. "It is unconscionable that a representative of a group that promotes a similar form of bigotry would be so honored."

High-profile hate speech cases internationally, where laws are in place to prosecute speech specifically, have often concluded in the defendant's favor, as in Scot's case, but the process has been long and expensive.

In Canada, any public speech that "incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace" or "willfully promotes hatred" is liable for prosecution. One of the country's top news magazines, Maclean's, faced charges in 2007 for an article published about the expansion of radical Islam. After months of haggling, several federal and provincial human-rights commissions dismissed the charges. The Canadian parliament is reviewing its menagerie of commissions that hand down hate speech convictions.

The problem for all these countries trying to feel their way forward on policies like hate speech, Nazir-Ali said, is that they have "thin values, not thick values." True liberty, equality, and the dignity of the human person are lost to the nebulous swirl of tolerance, he believes. British policies to accommodate each special group that enters the country, he says, send the message: "We don't know who we are, we don't know who you are, let's live together separately."

Legislator beware

House GOP leaders balk as Democrats sneak hate crime language into defense bill

By Emily Belz

Bill Greenblatt/UPI/Newscom

House Republicans have voted against nearly every major initiative the Democrats have put forward-the stimulus bill, the climate bill, the 2009 budget, the 2010 budget. But one thing they may be on the same page with President Obama about is the defense bill supporting troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So when Democrats attached the unrelated hate crime bill onto the defense spending bill, Republicans were upset but torn. The defense bill was something they could support; why have a beef with it when President Obama is in the midst of a decision about the future of Afghanistan? And if they voted no, that could be used against them later in campaigns, with ads flashing, "Congressman so-and-so voted against funding our troops."

But a few Republicans pushed back and got 130 of their party's members to vote against the bill, led by Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri, a senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee. To Akin it was clear: Republicans aren't really vulnerable to being characterized as disdaining the military; after all, their support of the war in Iraq is one reason they lost power. Akin's own son is on his way to Afghanistan.

If Republicans voted yes on the defense bill with the unrelated hanger-on, they estimated that Democrats would feel more freedom to attach unrelated legislation to must-pass spending bills.

"This is essentially a form of blackmail," Akin told me. "This is the sort of process that disgusts the American public." The Republican leadership initially intended to vote for the bill, but after a meeting with party members, the leadership voted no, and even spoke vehemently against the backdoor procedural move.

"I've supported every defense authorization bill that's come before this body, so I rise with a heavy heart to say that I will break that tradition," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., in a floor speech. Pence leads the Republican Conference. The bill, he said, is "piling liberal social priorities on the backs of soldiers."

"Our objective wasn't to go after hate crimes, but the procedures," said Akin. After Akin gave a furious speech on the floor, Missouri Democrat and Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, normally composed, dropped a comment near a live microphone: "Stick it up your [expletive]." Akin responded lightheartedly afterwards: "We're seeing whether that was a hate crime."

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

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