Dennis Myers: What we think can be penalized

On Oct. 13, swastikas were painted in a stairwell at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The campus art department has long dedicated the stairwell to free expression by students in graffiti or other forms the students want to use.

That night, the swastikas were painted over by upset students and the department chair. The following Sunday, a news conference and another painting party were held to advance community pressure against hate.

The incident raises a lot of the difficult questions free expression always raises.

By creating a forum for expression and then painting over the unpopular items, doesn’t it defeat the purpose of the forum?

Do we, by defining unpopular ideas as “hate,” tilt the public debate? No one is going to want to be on the side of hate.

This is the same university that Peter Cvjetanovic attends. He is the student defender of white culture who attended and peacefully marched in the Charlottesville white nationalist rally in August.

What does it say about how well this nation understands and appreciates free expression that 36,432 U.S. citizens signed a petition calling for UNR student Peter Cvjetanovic to be fired from his job and kicked out of a state university for the crime of having an opinion and expressing it nonviolently?

The Pew Research Center surveyed people in 38 nations and found that 71 percent of U.S. citizens think they should be able to say what that want without state curbs. But when there are actual disputes, people react differently. When an actual person is involved, whether a public figure or private citizen, everyday citizens react differently than they did to the abstract.

As for the legalities, we tend to think of our country as the best in everything, though it seldom is. In a ranking of free speech protections, the most recent annual World Free Press Index sponsored by Reporters sans Frontières put the United States 43d out of 180 countries.

The U.S. uses “incitement” and “hate speech” to penalize what people say.

Thomas Jefferson said, “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

Yet, if someone actually did urge the overthrow of the government, even though only by speech, that government would likely call it incitement and prosecute it.

Many, from Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal to a United Nations convention, have called for countries to make speech that promotes “racial superiority, or hatred, [or] incitement to racial discrimination” a criminal offense. The U.S. objected to the U.N. convention, but in fact our legislatures and Congress have made “hate speech” criminal by creating enhanced penalties when a crime is motivated by alleged hate, even though we have freedom of speech.

Federal law permits additional penalties for various crimes motivated by “a person’s protected characteristics of race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability.”

Nevada Revised Statutes allows additional penalties for felonies committed “because the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, physical or mental disability, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression of the victim was different from that characteristic of the perpetrator.”

In the case of civil lawsuits, there can be findings of additional liability for similar reasons.

In other words, people are punished not just for their deeds, but for their opinions. If it can be done under the guise of crime or liability, what is the next way it can be done?

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.