WASHINGTON -- The American Civil Liberties Union May 11 said that the Senate must amend a new hate crimes bill to limit its potential chilling effect on constitutionally protected speech.
In testimony submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the ACLU said the bill must be amended to prevent prosecution based on "mere abstract beliefs" or "mere membership in an organization." If the Judiciary Committee adopts an amendment to protect First Amendment rights, the ACLU said it would endorse the hate crimes legislation.
"The ACLU has a long record of support for strong protection of both free speech and civil rights," said Christoper E. Anders, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. "Rather than diminishing individual rights, it is our belief that vigilant protection of free speech rights has historically opened the doors to effective advocacy for expanded civil rights protections."
The ACLU testimony was submitted as the Judiciary Committee held a high-profile hearing on S. 622, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1999. Among those testifying before the committee was Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard, the young gay man brutally murdered last year in Wyoming.
In its testimony, the ACLU said that the serious problem of crime aimed at individuals because of their race, color, religion, gender, national origin, sexual orientation or disability merits legislative action. While race, religion and national origin are already covered under federal law, gender, sexual orientation and disability are not. And in 1996, the FBI reported 8,759 incidents of bias-related crimes. Of those incidents, 5,396 of them were related to race, 1,401 to religion, 1,016 to sexual orientation and 940 to ethnicity or national origin.
"Federal legislation addressing such criminal civil rights violations is necessary because state and local law enforcement officers are sometimes unwilling or unable to prosecute them because of either inadequate resources or their own bias against the victim," Anders said.
The ACLU stressed, however, that it cannot support the hate crimes bill unless it is amended to reduce or eliminate the possibility that the federal government could prosecute based on evidence of speech that had "no role in the chain of events" that led to a violent act.
"We seek a law that will punish the act of discrimination, but not bigoted beliefs," Anders said. "We are deeply concerned that the bill's sponsors and proponents have focused on 'combating hate' and fighting 'hate groups.' The focus properly should be on punishing violent acts themselves when victims were selected only because of who they are."