ACLU Says Hate Crimes Legislation Must Be Amended To Protect Free Speech

July 26, 2001 12:00 am

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States

Thursday, July 26, 2001

WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union said today that the Senate must amend a new hate crimes bill to limit its potential chilling effect on constitutionally protected speech.

“The ACLU has a long record of support for strong protection of both free speech and civil rights,” said Christopher E. Anders, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “Rather than diminishing individual rights, it is our belief that vigilant protection of free speech rights has historically opened the doors to effective advocacy for expanded civil rights protections.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee today approved a hate crimes bill (S. 625) introduced by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-MA. It is expected to reach the Senate floor this fall.

The ACLU said it would work to amend the bill on the Senate floor to prevent prosecution based on “mere abstract beliefs” or “mere membership in an organization.” If the Senate adopts an amendment to protect First Amendment rights, the ACLU said it would endorse the hate crimes legislation.

Two years ago, when the Judiciary Committee held its only hearing on hate crimes, the ACLU submitted testimony that said the serious problem of crime aimed at individuals because of their race, color, religion, gender, national origin, sexual orientation or disability merits legislative action.

While race, religion and national origin are already covered under federal law, the ACLU said, gender, sexual orientation and disability are not. And in 1996, the FBI reported 8,759 incidents of bias-related crimes. Of those incidents, 5,396 of them were related to race, 1,401 to religion, 1,016 to sexual orientation and 940 to ethnicity or national origin.

“Federal legislation addressing such criminal civil rights violations is necessary because state and local law enforcement officers are sometimes unwilling or unable to prosecute them because of either inadequate resources or their own bias against the victim,” Anders said.

The ACLU stressed, however, that it could not support the hate crimes bill unless it is amended to reduce or eliminate the possibility that the federal government could prosecute based on evidence of speech that had “no role in the chain of events” that led to a violent act.

“We seek a law that will punish the act of discrimination, but not bigoted beliefs,” Anders said. “We are deeply concerned that the bill’s sponsors and proponents have focused on ‘combating hate’ and fighting ‘hate groups.’ The focus properly should be on punishing violent acts themselves when victims were selected only because of who they are.”

Every month, you'll receive regular roundups of the most important civil rights and civil liberties developments. Remember: a well-informed citizenry is the best defense against tyranny.

Learn More About the Issues in This Press Release