Precinct 333

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Hate Crime Laws – Proper And Improper Usages

I’m not a big proponent of hate crime laws. While they make for nice symbolism – “we won’t tolerate hate” – they are generally not enforced with sufficient frequency or consistency to deal with the problem they are meant to eliminate. Swastikas on a synagogue are generally presumed to be a hate crime until proven otherwise, while Satanic scrawlings and desecration of the Eucharist at a Catholic church are treated as teenage mischief. That is why these two stories strike me as representing the two sides of this coin.

My first example is of a case where a hate crime law clearly ought to be used.

Ever since he was 12, Daniel Romano has cut a noticeable figure around Middle Village, a working class part of Queens. Mr. Romano, 20, who calls himself a Satanist, stands out, with his blue-tinted bouffant hairdo, his black clothing and fingernails, and the prominent crucifix, worn upside down.

Mr. Romano has long been teased for dressing like a "gothic kid" or simply a "goth," in a community with small homes, neat lawns and populated with many Roman Catholics.
But in recent weeks, two local teenagers began fixating on Mr. Romano, calling him names including "Satan worshiper," "baby sacrificer" and "hooker killer," the authorities say. On Sunday the verbal harassment turned into violence.

Mr. Romano, while walking on 72nd Street in Maspeth, was attacked by the two teenagers, the authorities say. Yesterday the Queens district attorney, Richard A. Brown, announced that the young men, Paul C. Rotondi and Frank M. Scarpinito, both 18 and from Middle Village, would be charged with hate crimes, which carry harsher penalties and are usually leveled when an attack involves a victim's ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

Let’s look at this case. You have a clearly identified crime, assault. It is clearly motivated by the victim’s religion, a criteria for the hate crime charge. There is no possible basis for claiming that the activity engaged in is itself protected by the Constitution. When all factors are taken into consideration, a harsher charge is warranted.

But then there are statutes that are subject to abuse, and prosecutors inclined to abuse them. We see this in the unfolding case of a group of Christians arrested at Philadelphia’s Outfest last fall, and charged with multiple offenses that could see them imprisoned for 47 years.

Although the precise sequence of events is in dispute, the general outline of what happened Oct. 10 is relatively clear, thanks to several videotapes and the police report.

Early that afternoon, 11 demonstrators led by Marcavage entered the eight-block area around 13th and Chancellor Streets where Outfest was taking place. Marcavage had a Bible in one hand, a bullhorn tucked under the other arm, and a Repent America baseball cap on his head.

The demonstrators were no strangers to event organizers or police. Repent America had brought its message - "Homosexuality Is Sin, Christ Can Set You Free" - to previous gay-pride events. In addition, group members had been thrown out of Citizens Bank Park in August for bringing in a banner to protest the Phillies' observance of Gay Community Day.

Soon after their arrival, Marcavage and company were surrounded by Outfest's makeshift security force, which was armed with pink whistles and eight-foot-tall boards of pink-colored insulation mounted on sticks. The force's goal was to prevent the group's signs from being seen and its words from being heard.

Eventually, a crowd formed, and police, who said in their report that they wanted to prevent violence, instructed the demonstrators to go to the edge of the Outfest area. A videotape shows Marcavage asking officers to protect his own freedoms of speech and movement.

After complying with two orders to move and refusing a third, the demonstrators were told they would be arrested. At that point, Marcavage sat down in the street, forcing police to haul him away.

Now there might be a basis for misdemeanor charges here, but even that is debatable. Outfest is a street festival, but the streets (in a residential area) are not blocked off to the public. People could come and go through the area at will – until (view video here) a pre-planned, pre-announced strategy of containment was implemented against Repent America by event organizers, based solely upon Repent America’s religion, sexual orientation, and exercise of the right of free speech. One of the charges, ethnic intimidation, is based strictly upon speech – spoken quotes from the Bible and those written on signs. Has the First Amendment been so watered down that quoting from a revered religious text constitutes “hate speech” and “fighting words” for which an individual may be imprisoned? And would a group of gay rights protesters at a Catholic ordination (like those who pelted a newly ordained priest and his mother with condoms in Boston several years ago) be charged with a felony hate crime on such a flimsy basis?

So while I may be pleased with enhanced charges based upon motive in the Queens assault case, I am much more frightened by the erosion of liberty in Philadelphia and its implications for American freedom.


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