Congressional Conference Committee Attempts to Turn Hate Crimes Law Into a Speech Code

Hate crimes are irrational, and what sets them off is often unpredictable. The hate-criminal whose sentence was upheld in Wisconsin v. Mitchell by a unanimous Supreme Court attacked a young white boy because of the outrage he felt after watching the movie Mississippi Burning, which depicted racism against black people in the Deep South. To him, two wrongs made a right.

If the victim had attempted to sue the makers of Mississippi Burning for inciting the hate-crime, the lawsuit would have been dismissed under the Supreme Court’s rulings in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) and Hess v. Indiana (1973), which say that the First Amendment protects speakers from being held liable for inciting a crime unless they intended to incite the crime, and to cause it imminently. This is the so-called Brandenburg test, and appeals courts have consistently applied it to all but one context (workplace discriminatory harassment claims under the federal civil rights laws).

A conference committee reconciling House and Senate versions of the federal hate-crimes bill recently decided to reject the Brandenburg test, however, hoping to snare people who do not intend to incite a hate crime in hate-crimes prosecutions. Both the House and Senate had earlier passed versions of the federal hate crimes bill that included language intended to limit, rather than expand, its reach over speech. The conference committee turned this language inside out, converting the free-speech language into anti-speech language. It inserted new language that made it clear that the absence of any intent to incite a crime should not necessarily protect the speaker from punishment if the government can show a “compelling interest” in prohibiting the speech that cannot be achieved through less “restrictive” means. A speaker can now be convicted even if his “exercise of religion, speech, expression, or association was not intended to plan or prepare for an act of physical violence or incite an imminent act of physical violence against another.” (This changed version then passed the House as an amendment to a defense appropriations bill, and it is now expected to pass the Senate in a few days.)

The purpose of the conference committee’s change appears to be to allow the government to prosecute people for otherwise protected speech, under the theory that it is “incidentally swept up” within a ban on discriminatory conduct — a rule uniquely applied to workplace discrimination law. In sexual harassment cases, employers get held liable for allowing employees to read things that incite them to harass fellow employees, even though such liability would not be possible under Brandenburg, which requires a closer link between speech and the incited action. (See Robinson v. Jacksonville Shipyards (1991) (trial judge ruled that employer was partly liable for letting employees read porn, which made them view female employees as sex objects, and thus resulted in sexual harassment).) The argument is that such speech is not banned for its own sake, but rather is “incidentally swept up” in a larger ban on discrimination, an “incidentalness” that somehow is supposed to make the ban on speech less objectionable (legal commentators have long ridiculed this reasoning, but the courts sometimes accept it in the workplace). (See R.A.V. v. St. Paul (1992) (Supreme Court said in dictum that race-based fighting words could be “incidentally swept up” within a ban on racial and sexual harassment in the workplace).)

Courts have by and large refused to restrict speech on this basis in society as a whole, outside the workplace. In White v. Lee, 227 F.3d 1214 (9th Cir. 2000), a federal appeals court held that the speech-protective Brandenburg test — not the speech-hostile standards of workplace discrimination law — applied to investigations under the Fair Housing Act, meaning that public speech against housing projects for minority groups like recovering drug users and the mentally ill could not be “incidentally swept up” within a statutory ban on discriminatory acts. Such speech remained protected, the appeals court unanimously ruled, even if it led to municipal action against such housing projects, as long as it did not intentionally cause imminent attacks on minority group members. The court rejected the argument that the speech lost its First Amendment protection because it was “discriminatory” in its purpose and effect. By contrast, in Presbytery v. Florio, federal district judge William Bassler suggested that anti-gay handbills could be restricted under New Jersey’s gay-rights law based on its “secondary effect” of causing discrimination against gay people, regardless of the Supreme Court’s Brandenburg ruling.

The conference committee’s changes to the hate-crimes bill appear to be intended to nudge courts interpreting the hate crimes law towards a more speech-hostile “secondary effects” interpretation, akin to Judge Bassler’s interpretation of the gay-rights provisions in the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.

Courts may well decline this invitation to regulate speech so broadly, however. Under the canon of constitutional doubts, courts are supposed to construe statutes narrowly to avoid potential constitutional problems. Criminal statutes like hate-crimes laws have to be more precise than a purely civil enactment like a workplace discriminatory harassment law. Interpreting the hate-crimes statute as not requiring that speech “imminently” and intentionally incite a hate crime for a conviction would render the hate-crimes law unconstitutionally vague, meaning that courts would generally interpret the law as requiring intentional, imminent incitement, under the canon of constitutional doubts. On the other hand, a court might refuse to do that based on the argument that it cannot rewrite the explicit language of the hate-crimes law inserted by the Conference Committee, which expressly assumes that speech can be banned even if it does not intentionally incite a hate crime. That would present a serious constitutional problem.

The language of the hate-crimes bill itself requires a violent crime to have occurred for a prosecution. However, another federal statute, the federal aiding and abetting statute, 18 U.S.C. 2, holds people liable for a federal crime even if they did not physically perform it, as long as they “induce,” counsel, aid, or abet it: “Whoever commits an offense against the United States or aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures its commission, is punishable as a principal.” The conference committee appears to be trying to get courts to interpret those words, such as “induces,” broadly at the expense of free speech, by preventing courts from construing those words narrowly to comply with the Supreme Court’s Brandenburg test.

In the long run, as the political climate shifts, and courts begin watering down the Brandenburg test even outside the workplace, such language could open the door to prosecutions over speech that offends a prosecutor, if it allegedly had some influence on a hate criminal. In Canada, hate-crimes laws were on the books for decades before they began to be used in earnest against publishers for peacefully dissenting against politically correct orthodoxies or offending radical Islamists.

Moreover, even if the attempt to convert the hate-crimes law into a speech code or hate-speech law fails, it still says volumes about the mind-set of the bill’s backers, who want to take a law seemingly aimed at violent hate crimes, and use it as a backdoor way of censoring speech, contrary to the wishes of many of their colleagues. Members of the public should ask the members of the conference committee, like Senator James Webb (D-VA), why they substituted this harmful language for the harmless language in the previous House and Senate versions, which were designed to protect against censorship, rather than cause it.

The hate crimes bill raises other problems as well. While the original version of the hate-crimes bill did not raise free-speech problems (contrary to the claims of the Religious Right, which also focused obsessively on the inclusion of sexual orientation in the bill), it did, sadly, seek to take advantage of a loophole in constitutional protections against double jeopardy (as I noted here and here), and it also did raise serious constitutional federalism issues. Those problems are equally present in the version of the hate-crimes bill that is now slated to be enacted by Congress.