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Eliminate, don't expand, LA hate crime protections

Louisiana lawmakers should want to create disincentives to attack first responders. But it won’t work using the flawed concept of “hate” crimes legislation.

HB 953 by state Rep. Lance Harris would add to the list of hate crimes already in statute law enforcement officers (including retirees), firefighters, and emergency medical services personnel, including people not of these professions but whom attackers believe them to be. In state law, the hate crime concept adds extra penalties when victim selection for a number of serious crimes comes from some characteristic imputed towards the individual.

However, the concept itself seriously threatens personal liberty and empowers the state beyond legitimate needs. It introduces the notion that certain thoughts and motives become criminal when acted upon in addition to the inherent immorality of the act itself. That might make philosophical sense if violent acts disregarding motives received no punishment under the criminal code, so only motive counted in assessing the criminality of the act; thus, punishable acts only would emanate from impure motives, while acts from other motivations receive a pass.

Yet the penal code doesn’t operate this way, as it punishes for physical harm actually done to an individual, regardless of motive. So to enhance a punishment for an act because the motive behind the crime came from bad thoughts sets a bad precedent: disentangling the two allows for a separate penalty for thought deemed deleterious by the state and makes it easier for jurisprudence to penalize thoughts and thoughts alone. Because by definition every crime of violence involves hate (whether acknowledged by the perpetrator), these laws create differences based solely on the criminalization of thought.

And in doing so, it makes future activist judiciaries feel more comfortable in declaring certain speech or religious activities cause violence of a psychological nature. This creep already has stolen a march; for example, combining New Orleans’ ordinances on hate crimes and disturbance of the peace mixes this dangerous cocktail for potential abuse.

Undoubtedly, society as a whole desires to protect first responders as much as possible, yet encouraging this kind of dynamic just makes the slope more slippery. Still, concern from legitimizing the idea of making criminal beliefs unrelated to actual commission of a crime might alleviate should additional penalizing serve a larger public purpose: if the extra penalty deterred crime, then this public good might outweigh the danger from giving government increased leeway in determining what thoughts deserve proscribing. But this fails, in that research shows, given the temperament of those considered to commit hate crimes, no deterrence seems to come from the extra punishment, nor do these laws appear to reduce the amount of crime against people in the protected classes.

So other than symbolic benefits, no public good comes from these kinds of statutes (which, even as the judiciary previously has upheld their constitutionality many questions remain unaddressed about that). Given the risk they entail for a free society, rather than increase the number of protected classes, the entire law should come off the books. Absent that, with the bill having passed the Legislature, Gov. John Bel Edwards should veto it and lawmakers, despite the large majorities that favored it, should sustain that.

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