ACLU Cheers Free-Speech Friendly Hate Crimes Legislation

September 27, 2007 12:00 am

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Amendment to Appropriations Bill Is First Senate Measure to Protect Free Speech While Punishing Hate Crimes

Washington, DC – The American Civil Liberties Union today applauded the passage of the Matthew Shepard Amendment to the Defense Department authorization bill that for the first time punishes hate crimes without infringing on free speech. The amendment, offered by Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Gordon Smith (R-OR), will broaden the definition of hate crimes and give more resources to local districts unable to investigate them single-handedly.

The federal criminal civil rights statute enacted in 1968 applies to violent crimes based on race, ethnicity and religion, but it does nothing to target crimes based on gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and disability. The Matthew Shepard Amendment will include those categories as protected classes and allow federal law enforcement officials to step in to prosecute hate crimes where local law enforcement falls short, either out of lack of resources or because of their own biases.

“This legislation marks a milestone for both First Amendment rights and civil rights,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “You can fight hate crimes without harming free speech, and this legislation reaches that goal.”

In the past, the ACLU has not endorsed hate crimes legislation because the organization found that earlier versions of the legislation would have had a chilling effect on free speech. Instead, this amendment only allows speech to be considered evidence of a hate crime if it directly relates to the specific act. As a result, no one will be prosecuted based on a book that he or she read, a meeting or religious service that the defendant once attended or a group in which he or she is a member — unless those speech activities specifically related to a violent hate crime.

“The hate crimes legislation is more protective of free speech than any other criminal law in the entire U.S. code,” said ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Chris Anders. “The amendment makes clear that violent hate crimes will be punished, but not mere thoughts, speech or belief. This legislation protects two fundamental American values because being able to live without the fear of being attacked just for being yourself is as American as the right to free speech.”

The House of Representatives passed similar hate crimes legislation sponsored by Representative John Conyers (D-MI) in May.

Read the ACLU’s letter to the Senate in support of the Matthew Shepard Amendment online at:

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