Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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June 7, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

HATE CRIMES....Matt Yglesias linked last night to a post by Matt Singer defending hate crimes legislation, saying that Matt S. "makes a strong case" for them.

Matt makes two arguments. First, while many crimes are motivated by hate, "hate crimes," like terrorism, are designed to generate fear, not just to attack a single person, and this makes them worse. Second, although it's true that hate crimes legislation punishes people more harshly because of what they think, motivation is a factor in the punishment of many crimes. Why not take it into account in this case as well?

I'm not quite as sanguine about Matt's second argument as he is, since the example of Europe shows that laws against hate crimes can rather easily morph into laws against hate speech, which I think are far more invidious. Still, the First Amendment probably protects us against that in the United States, so it's not a decisive concern.

But there's a third argument against hate crimes legislation, and it's the one that I find persuasive: who decides if something is a hate crime?

The hate crimes that make the front page are the obvious ones: Matthew Shephard being bludgeoned and left to die, or a Klan member burning a cross on someone's lawn and then attacking them. Those are easy.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of hate crimes are likely to be far more subtle, and there's a danger that prosecutors and juries will eventually trivialize the entire notion by continually pushing the envelope on the definition of "hate." Domestic violence? Rape? Any crime against a minority? An email written five years ago? Unfortunately, these definitions do tend to expand with time, and this makes me especially uneasy since it's people's thoughts that we're legislating against.

It's true that juries are asked to examine motivations all the time, and perhaps I'm being too wary of a slippery slope here. But I'm nervous in the first place about the possibility of punishing people additionally for their political thoughts and social psychoses, and the possibility that the scope of hate crimes might expand far beyond what most of us think is reasonable makes me even more nervous.

Put me down as tentatively against.

UPDATE: TalkLeft has more.

Kevin Drum 10:05 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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