May 24, 2009
Hate Crimes and the Sedition Act of 2009By John Griffing
HR 1913, The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and its companion bill S. 909, the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act threaten us with targeted censorship, attacks on religious freedom, and outrageous protections for pedophilia and other deviant behavior. Even prominent gay activists like Andrew Sullivan say that this legislation is unnecessary and dishonest. But if these arguments aren't enough to cause you to grab a pitchfork and march on Washington (or at least call your Senators), then perhaps you need a bigger perspective about what's really at stake.
As a reminder, the bill has been passed in the House, and is now in process in the Senate. The legislation contains provisions that will increase the penalties for acts committed against certain protected groups, punishing motives as well as acts, and giving special legal stature to homosexuals and those with sexually-related "disabilities". The language of the bill arguably undermines Fourteenth Amendment "equal protection of the law," making some groups more equal than others. Pedophiles are elevated to a protected class, but a mother who slaps a child rapist can go to jail for a hate crime. Rep. Alcee Hastings was even so brazen as to align the purpose of the bill with acts of sexual deviancy, saying that it is time to protect "‘philias and fetishes.'"
At the same time, amendments that would have protected faith-based groups from antagonistic prosecution were voted down. This has caused many advocates of religious expression to fear this legislation, drawing on examples of hate crimes laws in Britain and Canada where pastors and other persons of faith have been arrested for religious speech in public places.
These are all good reasons to oppose this bill.
But S. 909 must be stopped for reasons that go far beyond the issues attached to this particular legislation. This proposed law will set a precedent that can be broadened to encompass potentially any idea, belief, or viewpoint. Today hate, tomorrow fill in the blank.
S. 909 will merely serve as a mechanism or litmus test to determine how much of our liberty we are willing to give up. Immediate concerns about targeted censorship, religious oppression, and the predicted ascendancy of gay fascism are tangential to understanding the real threat this law represents.
Consider one of America's earliest threats, one that came from an unlikely source. Alexander Hamilton, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, spent a year assuring the anti-Federalists (those suspicious of government expansion) that the Constitution's broad and ambiguous wording would not be misused to deprive the people of their liberty, or the states of their sovereignty. But it was Hamilton who would author and succeed in enacting the infamous Sedition Act of 1798 that criminalized anti-government speech. Fearing the spirit of faction and division, Hamilton convinced his peers that the Sedition Act was necessary to preserve national unity and prevent civil war. Good intentions aside, the Sedition Act became the tool of the big-government Federalist Party to jail political opponents and silence debate.
One of the culprits arrested: Ben Franklin's grandson, a prominent publisher.
It was only a virtual second revolution with the election of Thomas Jefferson as President that reestablished the sanctity of the Constitution's protections of individual liberty and halted America's rapid descent into tyranny. Freedom was saved, but the Sedition Act proved that freedom was not invulnerable.
Today, S. 909 represents a new attack on freedom that could condemn future Americans to a life where ideas are the province of government, where freedom of opinion is regulated by bureaucrats in some cold, dark room. This and comparable future laws will inevitably create a climate of fear that will make it easier to coerce uniformity, regardless of who is in power. And if good men are threatened with criminal penalties for their ideas, many are likely to do nothing.
We need only look at the present bill to see how this might play out in the future. Due to the intentionally broad wording of S. 909, entire categories of thought can potentially be banned under the false pretext of ending "hate" or intolerance. Section 10 of the bill does contain a paper assurance that, "Nothing in this Act...shall be construed to prohibit any expressive conduct...or any activities protected by the free speech or free exercise clauses of, the First Amendment to the Constitution." But First Amendment protections are easily overridden by the application of US Code Title 18, Section 2 about criminal accessories: "Whoever commits an offense against the United States or aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces, or procures its commission, is punishable as a principal." If so-called "hate" is criminalized, then anything said in opposition to one of the protected groups can be defined as incitement to violence, and therefore illegal speech.
Additionally, S. 909 could have serious implications for the future of political discourse. If this power play works, then similar laws could be used to silence debate on many fronts. The two-party system could potentially be put at risk. If the temptations of power proved too much for a patriot like Alexander Hamilton, what can we expect from today's Washington?
The First Amendment is our nation's last defense against this massive encroachment. Outside of shouting fire in a crowded theatre, the First Amendment forbids any regulation of free speech, even if motivated by good intentions. The author of the First Amendment understood that,
If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.
The question is, who will watch the watchers? Thomas Jefferson explained:
Confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism...In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.
S. 909 isn't just about hate or homosexuality or religious views. At the center of this bill is the question of liberty. Will we continue to be a nation that protects freedom of thought, or will we prize conformity above all else? Defeating this bill should be every American's battle.
"And then they came for the Jews, And I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew...."
Freedom itself is in danger if this bill is not defeated. If even one idea can be criminalized, then no idea will be safe. Government seldom gives up power, and once that power is established and the precedent set, there will be no limit to the ideas that can be outlawed. Every idea, every belief will be a possible candidate. And once that door is opened, it will not be closed in our lifetimes.