Speaking of free expression ...

June 19, 2009

CFI’s Campaign for Free Expression is less than a whole day old, and already generating plenty of feedback. (Check out http://www.centerforinquiry.net/news/the_center_for_inquiry_launches_campaign_for_free_expression/  ). As executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, my special patch of this multi-pronged campaign is a website, www.pleaseblock.us . That’s right, “Please block us.” Its purpose is to recognize and link to the most vivid and controversial examples of free expression we can find, including—but by no means limited to—items some might consider blasphemous. From repressive national regimes to puffed-up institutions with onerous speech codes, we invite any who might feel impelled to block access to our site to do so. Fair warning: we WILL tell the world.

It’s gratifying to see that from the moment we went live, people “got it.” Here’s a declaration I received from Barry Greenstein, a humanist activist in the greater Philadelphia area. No two ways about it, Barry “gets” what pleaseblock.us and the Campaign for Free Expression are all about:

  “I oppose hate crimes legislation. This is not because I support hate groups or violence. I don’t, but I like the idea that a person can be criminally charged for their thoughts even less. That to me is a whole different order of violence.

“We already have laws against murder, rape, assault and battery. We have laws concerning conspiracy, extortion, and financial and sexual exploitation. Our laws aren’t always perfect, but we do not legally define crimes by the motivation behind them. To enact hate crime legislation is, in my opinion, far too close for my comfort to defining a legal category for what George Orwell called  ‘thoughtcrime.’ While the intent behind hate crimes legislation is well meaning, I do not think that enforcing social stigmas already associated with hate and violence is or should ever be the duty of the courts.

“Please stand with me and oppose hate crimes legislation. Ending hate is possibly the greatest challenge humanity can ever take upon itself, but defining hate or any state of mind as illegal is no solution.”

—Barry Greenstein




#1 Nairb on Friday June 19, 2009 at 12:29pm

Greatly admire your site and your work and Campaign for Free expression.

However while Freedom of expression is an extremely important and essential element of modern society, it should not be elevated to an ABSOLUTE above all other rights and responsabilities.

Sometimes freedom of expression conflicts with equality and our basic solidarity with humanity. In such cases a balanced decision should be taken.

A case in point is the inhuman treatment of muslim women often uneducated or even illiterate who “choose without community pressure” to express their freedom in wearing a burqa.

#2 Marisa (Guest) on Saturday June 20, 2009 at 8:50am

I have to disagree on the hate crimes. We actually do legally define crimes with respect to motivation or thoughts behind them. It is the difference between first degree murder, second degree murder, and manslaughter. All three result in a dead human being, but they are treated differently under the law.

A person that kills someone by accident or lack of knowledge isn’t considered to be the same danger to society as a person that intentionally tracks someone down and kills them with premeditation. In the same way, a person that has the level of hate for a specific group of people to commit a crime against them for no other reason than that their victim is a member of a particular group is a greater danger than someone who commits a crime out of fear or desperation. The need for hate crimes legislation is further evidenced when the victim belongs to a group that has traditionally been denied justice due to societal prejudices. There are instances throughout history when an oppressed group couldn’t even get the police to investigate the crime because the victim belonged to a minority group. Hate crime legislation helps ballance this by bringing in resources outside the local jurisdiction to assist in the process of justice being done.

This can’t be associated with thought crimes. You are still free to hate and be prejudice toward anyone you want. What changes is that if you kill them simply because you hate them, you can’t rely on a like-minded law enforcement depart or DA to ignore or downplay the crime for you.

#3 Barry Greenstein (Guest) on Sunday June 21, 2009 at 7:51am

Dear Marisa-

I was delighted to see your response. However, I must disagree with you on two counts, one minor (I believe I used the phrase “too close for my comfort to… thoughtcrime” rather than equating hate crimes directly with the concept of thoughtcrime). They are not the same thing.

I understand your reasoning, though I still think that other legislative avenues exist to expand social justice to minorities and victims of prejudice.

When I was writing that statement the distinctions between first degree, second degree murder and manslaughter did come to mind. The following are taken from the wikipedia article on murder:

  * The first scheme, used by Pennsylvania and the most common among other states:

    1. First Degree Murder: An intentional killing by means of poison, or by lying in wait, or by any other kind of willful, deliberate and premeditated action.
    2. Second Degree Murder: Homicide committed by an individual engaged as a principal or an accomplice in the perpetration of a felony.
    3. Third Degree Murder: Any other murder (e.g. when the intent was not to kill, but to harm the victim).

I would contend that premeditation- which distinguishes first and second degree murder- doesn’t reflect a specific motivation or intent, only that the intent existed, whatever the motivation.

As for third degree murder as defined above, the question of whether one intended to kill or not is a different question entirely from whether one intended to harm another person because of their hatred for that person’s race, color, creed, culture, religion, or sexual orientation.

On the subject of sexual orientation, this is one minority group that our laws do not protect to the same degree as racial minorities, and this needs to change. I just maintain that hate crime legislation is not the only way of updating the law to better counter the reality of prejudice.

* The second scheme, used by New York among other states, as well as the Model Penal Code:

    1. First Degree Murder: Murder involving special circumstances, such as murder of a police officer, judge, fireman or witness to a crime; multiple murders; and torture or especially heinous murders. Note that a “regular” premeditated murder, absent such special circumstances, is not a first-degree murder; murders by poison or “lying in wait” are not per se first-degree murders. First degree murder is pre-meditated. However, the New York Court of Appeals struck down the death penalty as unconstitutional in the case of People v. LaValle, because of the statute’s direction on how the jury was to be instructed in case of deadlock in the penalty phase.
    2. Second Degree Murder: Any premeditated murder or felony murder that does not involve special circumstances.

Same issue here. Premeditation isn’t the same thing as prejudice.

Thank you very much for you thoughtful response, Marisa.

Wikipedia’s references:

#4 Marisa on Monday June 22, 2009 at 8:02am

Mr. Greenstein,

Thank you for your reply! It does help clarify some of the questions and problems I had with your original statement. As long as we can agree that hate crimes aren’t the same as thought crimes, I have no problems with conceding that point. I would argue that they aren’t even remotely similar, but I also agree that this is a personal opinion and that personal opinions can vary greatly from person to person.

It seems I am mostly stuck on the wording of your examples. Again back to the examples of murder verses manslaughter (or third degree murder from the first example in your reply), the difference seems to be exactly motivation. It is not a different question at all. If you had no intention to kill someone, but you intended to do them harm, then you were motivated to do harm to that person instead of kill them. From WordNet[1]: motivation is the psychological feature that arouses an organism to action toward a desired goal; the reason for the action; that which gives purpose and direction to behavior; therefore the difference between first or second degree murder and manslaughter or third degree murder is your thoughts prior to, and possibly during, the act. If this is indeed the case, then we already do distinguish between crimes based on what a person was thinking.

I hate going from the general to the specific. I am always afraid someone is going to accuse me of trying to move the goalposts. Nevertheless, I am going to risk it here to try to add a little more context to specific hate crimes I am talking about.

With specific respect to the “Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009” [2], there are several facets to that particular piece of legislation. One facet is letting local law enforcement ask for help from the federal law enforcement agencies. This assistance covers a wide range of things ranging from the investigation to assistance in prosecuting the crime. Another facet is monetary grants. Since many jurisdictions aren’t well funded or well equipped, they can apply for a grant to assist them in the staggering costs of investigating and prosecuting a crime. Finally, and maybe most importantly, the bill specifically states that “Nothing in this Act, or the amendments made by this Act, shall be construed to prohibit any expressive conduct protected from legal prohibition by, or any activities protected by, the Constitution.” [3] therefore speech, thought and all our protected freedoms will not be infringed upon.

There is one point where we completely agree. You made the point: “I just maintain that hate crime legislation is not the only way of updating the law to better counter the reality of prejudice.” And I couldn’t agree more. I imagine that there are different ways, and quite possibly better ways, to update our laws than hate crimes legislation. I guess you could say that until someone comes up with one of those better ways, I think it is better to take the incremental improvements over doing nothing.

Thank you for your thoughts,

[1] http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=motivation

[2] http://www.opencongress.org/bill/111-h1913/text

[3] http://www.opencongress.org/bill/111-h1913/text?version=rfs&nid=t0:rfs:93

#5 Nairb on Wednesday June 24, 2009 at 3:30pm

Barry Greenstein says
“but defining hate or any state of mind as illegal is no solution.”

It is not the hate that is targetted as being illegal. What is being targetted is the expression of that hate towards particular parts of society.

To protect the cohesion of society it is useful for the state to express its disapproaval in a manner proportional to the impact that expression has on others.
In some countries Freedom is limited only when (inevitably) it encounters the freedom of others.

If the expression of hatred by one group limits the freedom of another then society as a whole is not free. For example if expressing hatred of muslims or jews leads to pograms , discrimination or deaths then one can hardly support such “Freedom of expression”.

There is a difference between hatred of an activity/behaviour and hatred towards individuals with incitement to violence/discrimination.

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