“Hate Crime” laws criminalize ideas
The House recently voted to expand federal “hate crimes” to include those committed because of the victim’s sexual orientation. The New York State legislature succinctly stated the case for these laws in its Hate Crimes Act of 2000: “Crimes motivated by invidious hatred toward particular groups not only harm individual victims but send a powerful message of intolerance and discrimination to all members of the group to which the victim belongs.” Thus, if someone commits a crime motivated by an idea the government deems “hateful,” he faces special penalties.
Despite the denials of “hate crime” law supporters, this criminalizes certain ideas. If the government can punish a criminal more harshly based on the “message of intolerance and discrimination” he sends through his crime, then the inevitable conclusion is that sending a “message of intolerance and discrimination” is a crime. Most Western countries have made that explicit: even Canada punishes “hate messages.”
It is irrelevant whether the ideas currently deemed “hateful” are repugnant, which in the case of racism or anti-gay vitriol they certainly are. Every attack on free speech starts by targeting ideas people find repugnant; that’s how censorship gains purchase. But once the principle is established that the government can punish people for holding unpopular ideas, then any dissenter is at risk.
The men who wrote the First Amendment sought to safeguard intellectual freedom by barring the state from taking cognizance of men’s ideas. The government, they said, has no role in deciding what ideas are true or false, right or wrong, hateful or loving. Its job is to proscribe actions that violate individual rights, so that each of us can make those determinations for ourselves.
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