Michigan's Big Brother Attorney General Will Crack Down Hard on Free Speech
"Know this: we are watching."
Who makes this kind of threat? Reinhard Heydrich, the notorious SS general and chief of the Gestapo? KGB head Vladimir Alexandrovich Kryuchkov? Big Brother?
They all talked that way. Last Friday, it was Michigan Department of Civil Rights director Agustin Arbulu's turn to say it. He and Dana Nessel, the new state attorney general, announced plans "to increase the documentation and prosecution of hate crimes and incidents" in the state.
Not just hate crimes. Hate incidents.
What's a hate incident? you may ask. The MDCR press release says, "Hate and bias incidents are those instances where an action does not rise to the level of a crime or a civil infraction."
Designating certain crimes as "hate crimes" was a bad enough idea, but expanding on the idea to target lawful actions that can be subjectively described as hateful goes too far. Is crossing someone off your Christmas card list a hate incident? or instigating a social media mob to destroy your high school frenemy? If a woman turns down a date with a guy because he supports Trump, is that a bias incident?
The problem with words like "hate" and "bias" is that they're far too easy to misuse. That's especially the case with people (biased people) who reflexively describe others who don't think like them as being motivated by "hate." Leading the charge in this practice is the Southern Poverty Law Center, which "label[s] virtually anyone who does not fall in line with its left-wing ideology an 'extremist' or 'hate group.'" Now Nessell and Arbulu are using SPLC's "hate map" as a guide for targets to spy on. "Hate cannot continue to flourish in our state," declares Nessel. Or at least hate as defined by Nessel, the ACLU, and the SPLC.
As an example of the type of incidents Nessel and Arbulu say they want to stamp out, the MDCR described flyers distributed around Lansing over the Presidents' Day weekend by a group called Patriot Front, a white nationalist splinter group that I'll wager not one in 300 Michiganders has ever heard of. The group's ideas are racist and stupid, including the one they share in common with Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, "that the U.S. government is controlled by Jews." Their flyers called for people to "Keep America American" and report illegal aliens to ICE. There was no suggestion that the members of the group were accosting anyone, were demonstrating, or even were out on the streets. "The flyers," the MDCR helpfully points out, "are protected under the First Amendment and do not rise to a crime."
They're also protected under the free speech section of the state Constitution, more or less placing beyond argument that Patriot Front's expression of their ideas, even if offensive and hateful, is a civil right.
Then why is the guy in charge of protecting civil rights in Michigan trying to check the exercise of free speech under the excuse that it's hateful? Why is the attorney general, the state's chief law enforcement officer, making it a priority to monitor and document activities that are not violating the law, on the pretext that they're motivated by bias? If the activity is not a civil infraction or a crime, how is it in her bailiwick? In fact, if an activity isn't a civil infraction or a crime, it's none of her freaking business.
The attorney general's role is to enforce the law, not to enforce the cultural revolution she serves as a warrior. But progressives in positions of power tend to let the lines blur between legitimate authority and the higher cause of social justice. Things like the Bill of Rights and statutes protecting Christian adoption agencies from being forced to violate their deeply held beliefs are simply obstacles to be swept aside. During her campaign, Nessel said she had no intention of enforcing the Michigan law protecting the religious liberty of Christian adoption agencies, and now she's following through. Even though the state constitution guarantees that "[t]he civil and political rights, privileges and capacities of no person shall be diminished or enlarged on account of his religious belief," Nessel wants to forbid the state from contracting with Christian agencies simply because she and the ACLU don't like (hate?) their religious beliefs. She says she won't use her office to "undermine some of the most important values in our state," but it's her values she cares about, not ours. And her values are abortion, LGBT privileges, and the eradication of Christian influence from the public square. She has no compunction about using her office to impose those values, and they don't include religious liberty or free speech.
Nessel's hate crimes unit "will include a minimum of one prosecuting attorney and one full-time investigator" and intends to "review any groups identified in the SPLC list," in addition to those identified through the unit's "independent research."
But, as Nolan Finley points out in the Detroit News, "the SPLC list is widely discredited as a political tool used to harass and discredit conservative groups. Spots on the list are earned not necessarily through hateful actions, but for expression of opinions on social issues that don't adhere to left-wing ideology." An instance of how "extremely reckless" the SPLC is about putting groups on its list is its designating the Michigan organization Church Militant/St. Michael's Media an "anti-LGBT" hate group "because it advocates strict Catholic teachings on marriage and is outspoken in its opposition to abortion."
Marc Thiessen describes what happened after the Family Research Council (FRC) made SPLC's hate list for believing in marriage. "Two years later, a gunman walked into the FRC headquarters with the intention to 'kill as many as possible and smear the Chick-fil-A sandwiches in victims' faces.' He told the FBI that he had used the SPLC website to pick his target." Just as Nessel's hate crimes unit will do.
It's not just the SPLC's reckless list-making that's wrong here. For all the damage it causes, the SPLC is still only a private organization and has been sued successfully and occasionally forced to back down. But the attorney general has police powers, and prosecutors drawing up political enemies' lists where no laws are being broken has more than a whiff of the totalitarian.
Am I exaggerating? Civil rights head Arbulu plans a database documenting "hate and bias incidents that don't rise to the level of a crime." But if he intends to document activities that aren't crimes — i.e., perfectly legal activities — how will he know that they're hate- and bias-related? It's going to require examining people's motives, which means their thoughts, and that means snooping on what they say, what they write, and with whom they associate. This kind of domestic spying will chill both free speech and the right to free association, both of which are guaranteed by the First Amendment. This isn't protecting Michiganders' civil rights; it's violating them.
This isn't what legitimate police do. This is what thought police do.
No one at Church Militant/St. Michael's Media broke any law or did anything to hurt any LGBT person; regardless, under Nessel's plan, the people there are going to be closely watched by the hate crimes unit. Watched for what? Arbulu says he wants his "department to be proactive and address issues before they rise to the level of a crime." Address issues how? We know that Arbulu said, "We are watching and we won't allow hate to divide us."
Free speech is under attack everywhere, with speech codes on campuses, social media shutting down conservatives, the Democrats' phony "For the People Act," the current attack on Tucker Carlson, and kids being bullied at school. With the arrival of Dana Nessel as attorney general, freedom of speech is officially under attack in Michigan, too.
T.R. Clancy looks at the world from Dearborn, Michigan. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.