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Opponents' arguments shaky at best

Feb. 14, 2001

I did not attend last week's debate between the Young Conservatives of Texas and the Association of Black Students about hate crimes legislation, but coverage of the debate on the 10 o'clock news startled me and got me thinking.

The clip I saw, in part, featured a member of the YCTs, who said that hate crime legislation infringes upon criminals' First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. The student went on to say that it's not feasible to punish someone just for his or her thoughts, for what is in his or her mind.

Another argument by the YCT's, according to the Lariat article covering the event, is that it is not possible to discern what is a criminal's mind when he or she commits a crime.

I realize that, not having been at the debate, I am probably only getting a portion of the YCT's argument against hate crimes legislation, but even these tenets need scrutiny and examination.

For one thing, it is sometimes possible to discern what is in the mind of criminals with a reasonable degree of certainty. Consider one of the most notorious hate crimes, the murder of Matthew Shepherd.

Shepherd was openly gay, and while his murderers were beating him up, they made anti-gay comments, according to witnesses of the crime. The crime happened in Wyoming, a notably conservative state where most citizens do not accept homosexuals and where hate crimes legislation has been proposed but not passed because of lack of support.

The circumstances surrounding the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. in Jasper also lend themselves to the conclusion that the crime was motivated by hate: All three of Byrd's convicted killers were members of white supremacist groups, and Jasper has long been a city rife with racial tension.

Not all crimes will be as clearly motivated by hate as these examples; however, making that determination is far from impossible, despite what the YCTs and others against hate crime legislation believe.

Another component of the YCT's argument stands on logically shaky ground. Hate crimes legislation doesn't infringe upon a person's right to think hateful thoughts.

It is and always will be a person's right to think the most horrible things about a person. But when those thoughts turn into motivation for criminal activity, the government must intervene.

Hate crimes legislation would do nothing to restrict thinking about certain things. If it did, it would be called 'hate thoughts' legislation, not 'hate crimes' legislation.

Another argument against hate crimes legislation is that such laws would give homosexuals and other minorities more rights than others.

Hate crimes differ from other crimes. By their very nature, hate crimes, defined by ABCnews.com as 'an offense motivated by the dislike of a person's race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or national origin,' say more than a crime not motivated by hate of one group. They say that not only does the perpetrator hate the individual against whom the crime was committed; the perpetrator hates an entire group of people so intensely as to harm an innocent member of that group.

So it makes sense that a crime that makes a stronger statement would carry a harsher penalty, just as a robbery, which says, 'I want your money,' is not as heavily penalized as a murder, which says, 'I want to end your life.'

Also, in many parts of the country, the groups against whom hate crimes are committed are often subjected to discrimination, taunting and ostracizing. Gays, in particular, do not have equal treatment under the law, not being able to legally marry (except in Vermont), and being excluded from the benefits that legalized unions entail.

However, opponents of hate crimes legislation aren't so concerned with the fact that, currently, not everyone has equal treatment under the law. When something like hate crimes legislation threatens to give previously short-changed groups of society greater protection, then conservative groups like the YCTs get concerned.

Attempts to make all men more equal under the law must be taken seriously and must not be dismissed unless some overwhelming reason presents itself. In the case of hate crimes, no reason that the YCTs and other like-minded groups give is substantial enough, in my mind, to outweigh the benefits that such legislation would provide.