Free speech ... and hate speech

matthew_shepardEleven years ago gay teen Matthew Shephard was beaten and left to die on a Wyoming fencepost. That was also the year three white men in a truck, in another sickening act of violence, pulled African American James Byrd behind them until he was dead. This past Wednesday, President Obama signed the Matthew Shephard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. In a fairly common practice, it was passed as part of a totally unrelated spending bill. As this Associated Press story notes, the federal law has now been expanded to included crimes against people committed because of gender, sexual orientation and disability. The story by Ben Feller, which also includes a lot of detail on the spending bill, contained this interesting paragraph:

At the urging of Republicans, the bill was changed before it was passed in Congress to strengthen free speech protections to assure that a religious leader or any other person cannot be prosecuted on the basis of his or her speech, beliefs or association.

Feller doesn't give details, but he does note what has been at the core of objections to the law: that it will constrain clergy and others who make public statements about homosexuality. In other words, does the law infringe on First Amendment protections and religious liberty? How are reporters writing about material objections to the hate crimes bill?

The best story I found (though it had its own problems) was a local one from Wyoming. But other articles either didn't mention religious and free speech objections at all (they don't go away because you ignore them), gave them scant attention, or fit the story into a particular ideological framework. That being said, I'm not sure from the coverage whether many editors considered this a standalone story, given where it seemed to end up -- in online blogs.

Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times didn't allude to objections in this brief "The Caucus" post -- a straightup report on what happened without any outside opinions.

Here's a sample of the second approach, from the website page "The Oval":

Opponents called the hate-crimes bill unnecessary, noting that Shepard's and Byrd's attackers were convicted in state criminal courts. Some critics objected to the inclusion of hate-crimes legislation in a defense budget bill.

"The president has used his position as commander in chief to advance a radical social agenda, when he should have used it to advance legislation that would unequivocally support our troops," said U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., chairman of the House Republican Conference.

Pence also argued that the law could be used to curb free speech rights, such as with religions that consider homosexuality a sin.

Yup, it is scandalous that Democrats and Republics tack totally unrelated amendments on to spending bills -- and everytime it occurs, the other party is outraged, outraged, outraged. The bigger news here, however, are the constitutional issues, which get a scant sentence.

On the other hand, take this story from the Washington Times. There's some good content here, but the author's focus is on the "Obama gives gay rights activists what they want" pretty much to the exclusion of other threads.

Critics said that because the new law only adds harsher penalties for acts that are already illegal and subject to criminal prosecution, its main achievement is to move the nation toward the criminalization of politically incorrect speech.

"Bills of this sort are designed to forward a political agenda and silence critics, not combat actual crime," said Erik Stanley, senior counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian advocacy group.

"All violent crimes are hate crimes, and all crime victims deserve equal justice. This law is a grave threat to the First Amendment because it provides special penalties based on what people think, feel or believe," Mr. Stanley said.

And that's the objection of many conservatives and civil libertarians -- that the law introduces a whole new class of what can be prosecuted in which the lines between permissible and impermissible speech aren't clear.

By the way, if "minority classes" are being protected, then it's the guys who ought to be happy. As far as I know, the census says that women are the American majority. None of the stories I saw really said anything about the other categories, like disability, now being federally protected -- hmmm, I wonder why?

But how is this new law going to affect clergy and laypeople in the real world (grin) outside the Beltway? A story from the Wyoming Tribune Eagle offers us a practical point-of- view from a state which (unlike 45 others) doesn't have hate-crimes laws.

Some Christians have expressed opposition to the bill because of a belief that it could criminalize pastors for preaching what the Bible says about homosexuality: that it is a sin to be repented like any other sin.

Opponents feel it could turn preaching the Bible into "hate speech," and some fear that pastors could be blamed for a hate crime committed by someone in their congregation.

"I would never speak in a manner that would encourage someone to harm someone who is a homosexual," the Rev. John Christensen, pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Cheyenne, said. "Clearly, no one should engage in an act of violence against a person because of (his or her) sexual orientation."Still, the bill steps dangerously close to the line, he added.

"I do have some concerns about it," he said. "I see it as a backdoor to censoring speech."

Is it only Christians who object to the new law? Last I heard, Nat Hentoff hadn't converted (this article, with a clear bias, nonetheless has some amazing links).

Also, progressives would dispute Baylie Evan's comment about Bible passages and homosexuality. Since Evans doesn't say what kind of Lutheran pastor Christensen is (is this a Missouri Synod parish?) you have one Lutheran pastor disagreeing with another (but wait, he's actually Presbyterian).

But though I don't think the extended block quotes technique serves the story well, Evans gives both sides ample quotes to make their points. I found the extended passage from Charles Haynes, a scholar with the First Amendment Center, particularly useful.

It's unfortunate that so few writers cared to go that deeply into the possible effects of a bill on Constitutional rights. Care to wager whether we're going to see a federal court case on one of these issues sooner right than later? Keep watching this space.

Picture is of the late Matthew Shepard

Please respect our Commenting Policy