Posts Tagged ‘political correctness’

Nat Hentoff Wrong on Rights? Say It Ain’t So!

Monday, May 11th, 2009

The clip above is from a speech Nat Hentoff gave a little while ago, summarizing some of the problems he has with hate crime legislation in general, and with the bill currently being rammed through Congress. The day after he gave that speech, we wrote in more detail about our own concerns with the law.

Although we do not like hate crimes any more than Mr. Hentoff does, we differ with him in that we don’t think they’re per se unconstitutional or inconsistent with American jurisprudence.

Hate crime laws stink because they fail to distinguish between criminal conduct and that which is merely nasty. They take something offensive, and call it an offense. That’s not what criminal law is for. The purpose of criminal law is to identify those acts that are not merely unpleasant, but which are so dangerous to society that they call out for the State to impose its might on the individual and punish him by taking away his life, liberty or property.

Now, there is a PC echo chamber that has a disproportionate voice in today’s government, and in that chamber “hate” really is seen as something requiring extra punishment. Commiting a crime with hate required more punishment than if you committed the same crime for some other reason. But outside of that echo chamber, the mainstream culture just doesn’t see a distasteful motive as a justification for extra punishment.

Hate crime laws also stink because they are inherently un-American. They’re something you’d more expect to see in continental Europe, where state dominion over the individual has been the norm since time out of mind, and there are fewer protections for offensive thoughts. Hate crimes are the stuff of the horror show that England has lately become, as London’s Mayor Boris Johnson writes today, complaining of an England with “its addiction to political correctness — where people are increasingly confused and panic-stricken about what they can say and what is forbidden, a culture where a police officer can seriously think he is right to arrest a protester for calling a police horse ‘gay.’ [England’s] courts and tribunals are clogged with people claiming to have suffered insults of one kind or another, and a country once famous for free speech is now hysterically and expensively sensitive to anything that could be taken as a slight.” That is not the direction in which Americans tend to see themselves heading. Off campus, America simply is not a place where the ASBO could exist. And so it is not a place where hate crimes ought to exist.

That doesn’t mean such laws are necessarily inconsistent with the underlying principles of how we make criminal laws in general. They may not fit with American sensibilities, but they don’t violate our jurisprudence. As we wrote last time, the general idea of hate crimes is simply to add a new level of mens rea. It’s not only doable, it’s something that we’ve done before.

Today, Mr. Hentoff published another piece on the upcoming hate-crimes law, spelling out why he thinks it is unconstitutional and not merely a bad idea. It “violates all these constitutional provisions,” he says: the First Amendment, equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment, and the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment.

We do think the bill, as written, is so vague that is must be voided by the Rule of Lenity. And we do think that, as written, it could well have unintended consequences, and create far more injustice than it’s supposed to prevent.

But unconstitutional? We hate to say this, but we think Mr. Hentoff… we think he… (we can’t believe we’re saying this about one of our intellectual idols)… we think Mr. Hentoff has mischaracterized the rights and protections of the Constitution.

How does it violate the First Amendment? Hentoff acknowledges that the bill explicitly says that it isn’t to be read so as to “prohibit any expressive conduct protected from legal prohibition” or speech “protected by the free speech or free exercise clauses in the First Amendment.” But he alludes to 18 U.S.C. § 2(a), which makes you punishable as a principal if you merely “abet, counsel, command or induce” a crime. Speech that induces a hate crime would make you guilty of the hate crime, and so free-speech protections would be violated.

This point was raised in 2007, the last time this bill was considered, when Democratic Rep. Artur Davis said that the law could conceivably be used to prosecute a pastor who had preached that homosexuality is a sin, if it induced someone else to commit violence against a gay person.

There are two big problems here. First of all, the First Amendment protection of free speech is not absolute, and Hentoff of all people should know this. There is always a balancing of the right to free expression against the harm to society that such expression may cause. You don’t have a free-speech right to shout that you have a bomb while standing in line at an airport. You don’t have a free-speech right to offer to sell crack to an undercover. When speech makes out an otherwise criminal act, you’re going to face jail for having said those words. And the First Amendment won’t protect you.

The other problem is that 18 U.S.C. § 2 does not impose criminal liability for unexpected consequences. A pastor who speaks about the Bible to his congregation isn’t going to be liable for subsequent acts of a deviant member of his flock. That’s not the same as a similar authority figure instructing an unstable young man that God wants him to kill gay people. There’s an element of willfulness or recklessness that’s required. And if you willfully said something to induce an act of violence, then it is not speech that the First Amendment protects.

How does this hate crimes bill violate the Fourteenth Amendment? Hentoff says it violates equal protection, not in the way it’s written, but in the way it will be enforced. A white person targeting black people will be punished for the hate crime, but a black person targeting whites won’t be.

That may make intuitive sense, as the law was originally conceived to battle discrimination against minorities. And prosecutors may choose not to apply it if the victim is a white male. That has happened before, as Hentoff points out. A gang in Colorado had an initiation ritual of raping a white woman, and the prosecutor in Boulder opted not to charge a hate crime there.

Nevertheless, the law itself, as written, does not violate equal protection. Yes, prosecutors will (and must) always have the discretion to choose whether to bring a charge or not in a given case. And it is entirely likely that a black guy who punches someone in the nose just because they’re white may not be charged with a hate crime, even though it clearly fits the bill, because of other factors going through the prosecutor’s head — it might not be politically savvy to further penalize someone who (to the paternalistic PC) already had to suffer the discrimination and indignity that made him act out like this. Or it just might not feel right.

But then again, this bill, as amended, is now written very broadly. It casts a much wider net than mere black vs. white. In addition to race, it considers violence committed because of national origin, religion, sex, sexual preference and disability. Everyone is a potential victim of a hate crime now. There are going to be plenty of opportunities to charge members of “victim classes” for hate crimes when they attack members of other victim classes. A disparate effect has yet to occur, and there’s good reason to believe that it never will.

And how does the bill violate double jeopardy? Hentoff is concerned that someone could be charged with an assault in state court, and be found not guilty, only to find himself haled into federal court to face a new prosecution for the same act under the federal hate crime law.

Unfortunately, this is not a double jeopardy problem. It is not unconstitutional for the feds to prosecute someone for a federal crime after he’s already gone through a prosecution for the same act in state court. Double jeopardy does not apply to prosecutions brought by different sovereigns. Each state is a separate sovereign, in addition to the federal government. If you stand in Manhattan and shoot someone on the other side of the Hudson in New Jersey, both states are allowed to prosecute you for it. Some states have extra protections for the individual here — New York won’t prosecute someone after the feds did — but the feds are not so constrained.

And the feds already do this kind of thing routinely with gun laws. If you committed certain crimes with a gun, you can be prosecuted in state court for the crime, and then afterwards get prosecuted in federal court for possessing the gun at the time. These cases are extremely straightforward — either you possessed the gun or you didn’t — and they often go to trial, because of mandatory sentencing, so young federal prosecutors tend to cut their teeth on this stuff. It’s routine, and it does not at all violate double jeopardy.

* * * * *

Hentoff ends his piece today by urging President Obama, before signing the bill into law, to refresh his understanding of the Constitution. He suggests that, as the “former senior lecturer in that document at the University of Chicago, [Obama] should at least take it with him on Air Force One, where there are fewer necessary distractions, and familiarize himself with what the Constitution actually says.”

We love Nat Hentoff. We idolize the man. We agree that hate crime laws have no place in this country. But we think he ought to take his own advice and re-familiarize himself with what the Constitution does and does not protect.