07/30/2007 07:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Perils of Hate Crime Laws

Imagine five situations, the first of which is a real case, in which the defendant was arrested and charged Friday; the others are hypotheticals that strike me as legally analogous to the Shmulevich prosecution:

  1. Stanislav Shmulevich steals a Koran from Pace University, puts it in the toilet, and covers it with feces. He is prosecuted not just for the misdemeanor of damaging a book (which he seems to be guilty of), but for a felony hate crime, because he is acting "because of a belief ... regarding the ... religion ... of a person," there some Muslims with whom he had been having an argument — perhaps he thought that the Muslims were bad because of their Islam, and he wanted to blaspheme against Islam as a way of getting back at them. (Note that he did not choose his victim because of the victim's religion; the victim of the property damage is Pace University.)

  2. Shawn Eichman comes to New York to burn another flag; he borrows the flag from an acquaintance, but without the acquaintance's permission to burn it. He is prosecuted not just for the misdemeanor of intentionally damaging another's property, but for a felony hate crime, because he is acting "because of a belief ... regarding the ... race, ... national origin, ... or religion ... of a person." Say, for instance, he was burning the flag to protest the lack of enough blacks or Hispanics in various parts of the administration (race), to protest what he sees as various Republican leaders' wrongheaded and excessive religiosity (religion), or to protest what he sees as the misconduct of American troops (assume that New York courts interpret "national origin" to include American citizenship or participation in American isntitutions).

  3. An artist creates a display with a cross covered in human excrement, to protest what he sees as the historical crimes of Christianity (or, if you prefer, the Catholic Church's actions with regard to child molestation by priests). However, he does this on the premises of a public housing project, and refuses to leave when the public housing project authorities tell him to do so. Such failure to leave is normally a third-degree criminal trespass, which is a class B misdemeanor. But the artist is prosecuted for a class A misdemeanor because he committed the acts because of a belief regarding the religion of various Christians or Catholics against whom he is protesting.

  4. A minister comes to the home of a local Episcopalian Church leader to remonstrate against him because of the Church's willingness to approve gay bishops. The leader at first grudgingly agrees to let the minister enter and discuss the matter, but eventually demands that the minister leave. The minister refuses to leave, which would normally make him guilty of class A misdemeanor second-degree criminal trespass -- but because the minister was motivated by a belief regarding the sexual orientation of the confirmed bishops, the minister is prosecuted for a felony hate crime.

  5. Finally, assume that New York law is revised to cover not just the offenses that are now specified in the hate crime statute, but also any other crime, such as blocking traffic and the like. This means that anyone who acts illegally in the course of a protest motivated by someone's race, religion, religious practice, sexual orientation, and the like -- for instance, steps out on the street in a way that blocks traffic or throws papers on the ground in violation of a littering ordinance -- would be eligible for extra punishment because of why he was protesting.

It seems to me that this sort of use of the hate crime statutes is at least very dangerous to free speech, and may well be unconstitutional. Unfortunately, people sometimes act in illegal -- often mildly illegal -- ways when engaged in protest. It's right to punish them for such actions. But it seems to me that they shouldn't be punished more (potentially much more, as when a misdemeanor is turned into a felony) because they were motivated by disapproval of a religion, a religious practice, a sexual orientation, and the like, or were motivated by a desire to offend people based on these criteria.

Such additional punishment is not, it seems to me, primarily punishment for the crime (since that would have been covered by the unenhanced punishment), or even for the discriminatory selection of a crime's target. Rather, it is punishment for the ideology that motivated the crime. And it will deter even speakers who have that ideology but have no plans to commit any crimes: Even such speakers may face substantial extra punishment if they angrily destroy some even very cheap property (see examples 1 and 2), refuse in the heat of the moment to comply with a command to leave property (see examples 3 and 4), or do something that may be misinterpreted as intentional misconduct.

In Wisconsin v. Mitchell (1993), the Court did indeed uphold a law that increased the punishment of criminals who "[i]ntentionally select[ed] the person against whom the crime ... [was] committed ... because of the race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin or ancestry of that person." And indeed, given that even legal conduct (e.g., firing someone, refusing to rent to someone, and so on) can be made civilly actionable when it is done because of the target's race, religion, and the like, I think criminal conduct can be punished more when the target is selected because of the target's attributes.

But it doesn't necessarily follow that the law should be free to increase the punishment not just because the criminal was discriminating in choice of victims, but because the criminal was hostile to some other person based on that person's religion, religious practice, sexual orientation, or race -- which often means that the criminal simply disapproved of some group, even when the target of the crime was not discriminatorily chosen. Nor does it follow that the law should be free to increase the punishment because the criminal was trying to insult some group.

And even if the First Amendment does give the government a free hand in enhancing punishments on such bases -- which Mitchell could be read as approving, though I don't think it has to be so read -- the Shmulevich case and the other examples are good reasons to resist such laws. The criminal should be punished for committing a crime. But he shouldn't be punished any extra because his intentionally damaging a book, recklessly damaging someone's property, or trespassing was motivated by his hostility to Islam, fundamentalist Christianity, Scientology, or whatever else.

(For more on the growing movement to specially punish speech that is blasphemous or otherwise offensive based on religion, see here.)