On Hate Crime Laws
From my brother Paul comes an e-mail in support of this article on a particular instance of Hate Crime legislation, as enforced in Philadelphia, which elaborates on the particular set of circumstances that led to a group of Christian Evangelicals to be arrested in a counter-protest against a Gay Pride rally.
While I agree with the principle that those who act with the clear intent of disrupting a lawfully organized event through actions meant to incite conflict are not protected by the First Amendment (think yelling "Fire" in a crowded theater), I have major qualms about imposing federal "hate crime" legislation that includes such actions. In my view, the police, in maintaining the public safety by removing the protestors, did their duty, and in charging them with misdemeanors such as "failure to disperse under official order", the problem was solved to the satisfaction of the public good. I don't see how Uncle Sam needs to get involved in this. While I would like to see Fred Phelps and his ilk locked in prison, on strictly ethical and aesthetic grounds, I feel that we risk our constitutional freedoms when we allow federal law to impose itself on local matters of assembly and speech.
My overall viewpoint on federal law is that I prefer it to protect andextend freedoms, not to criminalize and ensure punishment. I suppose one could argue that by charging the counter-protestors with hate crimes, we are protecting the right of assembly of the gay and lesbian group, but I would reply that those rights were already protected by local law enforcement, and that this double-punishment is intended to have a chilling effect, not just on these protestors, but others who might act more civilly. Accordingly, it serves a form of de facto intimidation against the right of free assembly of those who hold unpopular, but constitutionally-protected viewpoints.
For example, if someone like our father (a very conservative Catholic) were to protest a Gay Pride rally, we could assume that he would do so quietly and civilly. But by extending federal law in this manner, he may be intimidated against expressing himself through free assembly, for fear of punishment under hate crime statutes. Thinking upon it, I acknowledge that this is similar to the argument fraud intimidates minority voters who, as legal voters, have nothing to fear), which I believe is a bogus one, I suppose that the constitutionality of this sort of law is highly dependent on the manner in which it is worded and enforced.
I prefer to err on the side of protecting dissenting opinions, but in this case, it is difficult to see which side is dissenting, as we have a gay organization that is supported by a minority of the public, and an evangelical christian organization that is supported by another minority of the public. Which leaves my original heuristic paramount: as long as the system isn't horribly broken, the federal government should stay out of it.