ACLU Endorses Federal Hate Crimes Legislation for First Time, Says Conyers Proposal Properly Addresses Free Speech Concerns

May 26, 2005 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – After more than seven years of expressing concerns that federal hate crimes legislation would chill constitutionally protected speech, the American Civil Liberties Union today endorsed a new hate crimes bill introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI).

The Conyers measure, which includes protections against hate crimes committed on the bases of gender identity and sexual orientation, also includes an explicit ban on the use of speech or association to prove criminal activity, unless it specifically relates to the crime.

“This carefully crafted measure shows that you can prosecute hate crimes without attacking freedom of expression,” said Christopher E. Anders, an ACLU Legislative Counsel.

“Federal legislation addressing hate crimes is necessary because state and local law enforcement officers sometimes do not act because of either inadequate resources or their own bias against the victim,” Anders added. “Congress should adopt this measure to place gender, disability, gender identity and sexual orientation in the same protected class as race, religion and national origin.”

Conyers was joined in sponsoring his bipartisan bill, the “Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2005,” by Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Christopher Shays (R-CT).

The ACLU has for years declined to endorse federal hate crimes bills because they lacked key free speech protections. The Conyers legislation, however, removes the danger that unrelated speech-related evidence would be used as a basis for convicting a person of a hate crime. It also eliminates the risk of prosecutors focusing on “guilt by association” with groups whose bigoted views we may all find repugnant, but which had no role in committing the violent act.

The ACLU also noted that the need for protections against hate crimes is growing. Under the Hate Crime Statistics Act, the FBI annually collects and reports statistics on the number of bias-related crimes reported by local and state law enforcement officials. In 2003, the FBI reported 7,489 incidents covered by the act. Of those, 3,844 were related to race and 1,239 were related to sexual orientation. Gender identity is not a category monitored by the act.

“This law would punish acts of discrimination, but not bigoted beliefs,” Anders said. “Congress should act to punish persons for violent acts when victims were selected only because of who they are.”

The ACLU’s letter in support of the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2005 is at:

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