- Metro Weekly writer fears drag queens (Photo: Associated Press)
Richard Cohen’s recent opinion column lays bare a fundamental misunderstanding of the rationale behind hate crimes legislation. Cohen is at once, factually incorrect, culturally insensitive, and intellectually irresponsible in the means with which he justifies his opposition to the criminal enhancements levied upon those found guilty of hate crimes. However, this letter is not about rebutting the views of one columnist, but rather the need to raise public awareness and increase the understanding of the rationale behind, and the importance of, laws that criminalize hateful actions.
Our Constitution protects the freedom of self-expression which includes the freedom to dissent from popular opinion and even the freedom to use speech that is vile, distasteful, or repugnant. Hate crimes legislation does not seek to criminalize freedom of expression, but rather demarcates the line between self-expression and hateful actions that harm the life or the property of an individual based upon their inclusion (or perceived inclusion) in a particular group. To be clear, hate crimes laws do not allow individuals to be prosecuted for their hateful thoughts or speech, rather it punishes the actual crimes committed, many of which tend to be particularly violent.
It is inaccurate to characterize hate crimes laws as separate or special laws. Rather than being separate or special, they allow judges, at the time of sentencing, to enhance penalties against those found to have committed hate-motivated crimes. Without a doubt, every act of violence is tragic. A hate crime occurs when the perpetrator intentionally targets a victim solely because of some intrinsic characteristic. They affect not only the victim, but an entire category of people. Hate crimes enhancement penalties are appropriate in that they recognize that in terrorizing a specific group, hate crimes have a much broader impact than just the attacker and the victim.
Finally, hate crimes laws do not create a special subset of victims nor do they favor one minority group more so than another. It is crime motivated by bias that divides communities, not hate crimes legislation. Hate crimes laws seek to recognize the threat and detriment this particular form of violence can have on a community and our society as a whole. Hate and bias motivated crimes are a widespread problem and occur everywhere – in all parts of our Nation. Perhaps the most important impact hate crime laws have is the public awareness they bring to the epidemic of hate-motivated violence and the message they send that we as a society will not tolerate this type of intimidation and violence.