As you may have heard, there's a bill winding its way through Congress that would expand the current Federal hate crime law to include hate crimes committed over sexual orientation, transgender identity, gender, or disability. (The current law covers hate crimes committed because of race, color, religion, or national origin.)
I'm not just writing this to beg everyone reading this blog to write or call your Senators. (Although I'm doing that, too. Please, for the love of all that is beautiful in this world, write or call your Senators. This passed in the House, but it's facing a fight in the Senate, and I'm hearing that the calls against the legislation are far outstripping the calls supporting it. It takes two minutes. Google your Senators' names, find their official Websites with their phone numbers, and call them. Please do it.)
But that's not the only point of this post. I've had a rant brewing for some time about hate crime laws, and now seems like the obvious time to do it. (Important disclaimer: I'm a smart observant person, but I'm not a legal expert. If any legal experts see any flaws in my understanding of the law, please point them out.)
There's a common misconception about hate crime laws -- which is that they criminalize hateful speech or writing. They don't. There is an enormous difference between hate speech laws or rules -- such as the ones that exist on many college campuses (and which I do, in fact, vehemently oppose) -- and hate crime laws.
Hate crime laws don't criminalize speech. What hate crime laws do is say that, if a crime is motivated by hatred or bias towards a group -- a race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, etc. -- then extra time should be added to the sentence.
In other words, they say that certain motives for crimes are worse than other motives, and deserve a more severe punishment.
And that's a legal principle that is both extremely well-established and widely accepted.
Look at the difference between first-degree murder, second-degree murder, manslaughter, justifiable homicide, etc. Our laws say that it's worse to kill someone in cold blood for money than to kill someone in the heat of passion for anger; which is worse than killing someone recklessly and stupidly in an accident; which is worse than killing someone in self-defense. It's a clear legal principle: different reasons for killing people deserve different degrees of punishment.
Now, some people argue that the problem with hate crime laws is that they are de facto laws against hateful speech -- since hateful speech is typically what distinguishes between a hate crime and a regular crime. If you're screaming, "Die, faggot," when you're beating someone up, that's evidence that it's a hate crime -- and some people argue that this makes hate crime laws a violation of the First Amendment. (I've seen this argument made -- unopposed -- not just in political and punditry circles, but in otherwise generally intelligent and more or less progressive pop culture arenas, such as Law & Order, The West Wing, and South Park.)
But that's just silly. There's a huge difference between speech as speech, and speech as evidence of motive.
Again, let's look at the difference between first-degree murder, second-degree murder, justifiable homicide, etc. If a person who's killing someone is heard to say, "Ha ha, after months of careful planning, my scheme to kill you for your insurance money is finally coming to fruition," you can bloody well believe that those words are going to be used as evidence of first-degree murder. Nobody on Earth is going to oppose that on First Amendment grounds.
(And if the killer is heard to say, "You bastard, I can't believe you're having sex with my wife, I'm so angry I could kill you," or "I can't believe how drunk I am -- whoops!", or "Get your hands off me! Help!", or "I'm sorry, but the ghost of Millard Fillmore spoke to me through the fillings in my teeth and told me to kill the first redhead I saw," then that's going to be used as evidence to support second-degree murder, or self-defense, or an insanity plea, or whatever.)
That's what hate crime laws do. They don't make hateful or bigoted words into a crime. They allow those words to be evidence of a particular motive for the crime.
And they do this to support the principle that hurting or killing someone because of bigotry and hatred is an exceptionally bad reason to hurt or kill someone. They say that this sort of crime harms not just the victim, but all of society. They say that our society is exceptionally appalled by crimes committed because of bigotry, and finds them even more intolerable than garden-variety crime.
Now, I'll remind you here: We already have a federal hate crime law on the books, adressing crimes committed because of race, color, religion, or national origin.
So to oppose this latest law is to say that hurting or killing someone because of any of those reasons is exceptionally bad… but killing someone because of gender, sexual orientation, transgender identity, or disability is nothing special. No big deal. When someone gets beaten up because they're black or Jewish or Italian -- that's exceptionally serious. When someone gets beaten up because they're queer, female, transgendered, or disabled -- not so much.