Hate-crime laws are not the solution
Last week, a 28-year-old Michigan woman was brutally assaulted by three men. The woman had recently married her girlfriend following a federal court ruling that Michigan's Constitutional Amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. When the three men saw the woman, they recognized her from local news reports and attacked her while shouting anti-gay epithets. This horrible event has brought attention to Michigan's hate crime statute. The statute prescribes harsher sentences for crimes motivated by a victim's "race, color, religion, religion or national origin," but does not recognize sexual orientation as a protected class. Many have called for an amendment to the Michigan statute to protect sexual orientation as well.
Those who advocate for hate crime laws, though well intentioned, miss the mark in guaranteeing equal protection under the law. Hate crime laws are not necessary to punish heinous acts such as those in this case. Violently attacking another person, regardless of motive, is an act of blatant disregard for the rights of other citizens. As a crime against society, it is punishable by law in every state, and justly so. Hate crime laws, on the other hand, take actions previously considered criminal and increase sentences for certain motives that are considered particularly unacceptable. This is an impermissible distinction for our laws to make. It is wrong for our laws to imply that an assault motivated by personal hatred toward a victim is more justified than an assault motivated by hatred toward a generalized class that the victim may or may not belong to. We should punish similar crimes with similar sentences, regardless of the motive of the assailant. The fact of the matter is, with the possible exception of self-defense, it does not matter at all what the attacker's motive is. If he has been convicted of a crime, he should be punished to the just extent of the law.
However, some people seem not to understand the distinction between generally applicable criminal laws and hate crime laws. "People on the other side of this issue tend to think of it as the LGBT community looking for a special right. It's not a special right to walk down the street holding the hand of people you love and not be attacked," Yvonne Siferd, director of victim services for Equality Michigan, said. Siferd is entirely correct. It is not a special right to be free from assault. That is why assault is already a criminal offense in the State of Michigan. The police did not dismiss the victim's case because assaults motivated by anti-gay bias are legally acceptable. They are pursuing the case because all people have the right to be free from assault, regardless of the attacker's motive or class the victim belongs to. Hate crime laws are not necessary to provide the protection Ms. Siferd desires. It already exists.
Hate crime laws proscribe certain types of thought, not action. It is racial, religious, ethnic and gender biases that these laws target, not any type of criminal action. It has been an enduring and noble principle of American thought that people should be free to hold whatever beliefs they like, however repugnant. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and similar guarantees in state constitutions have enshrined this principle. It is only when citizens take action in direct violation of the rights of others that the law should intervene. It is clear that the ideas expressed by the assailants in this particular case are vile and hateful, but the law should not punish odious ideas. It is for competition in the marketplace of ideas to prove that such hateful thoughts are wrong. There is no doubt that with vigorous debate, such prejudiced ideas will be defeated soundly by more enlightened and reasoned thought. We cannot legislate away ideas we find horrible. We can only use the coercion of the State to punish criminal acts against society. We must rely on reason and truth to defeat the types of thought displayed in this case.
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