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Myers: It’s not government’s job to outlaw opinions

When hate crimes laws began passing legislatures in the early 1990s and campuses began adopting speech codes, there were liberal and conservative civil libertarians who warned against the trend.

Actions like physically attacking minorities or damaging religious property can be prosecuted as crimes, the warnings went, but enhancing penalties because the perpetrators hold opinions that society deems hateful starts us down a long road.

Nevada’s U.S. Rep. Jacky Rosen recently wrote, “The recent etchings of swastikas at a Mexican consulate and onto a marble column of a Las Vegas synagogue just 30 minutes from my home only confirms this national trend is being felt at the heart of each local community across our country. These threats are real, and they cannot be and will not be ignored.”

All true. But that does not mean that government should, by enactment of law, be placed in charge of deciding what OPINIONS are acceptable, much less which opinions are punishable by law – not in the land that created the first amendment. The crimes, not the motives, should be punished.

In his first inaugural, Thomas Jefferson said that even those who called for subverting U.S. democracy should be allowed to “stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

But reason is not free to combat error if the steel weapon of the law is drawn against opinion. In addition, in the presence of anti-opinion laws, unpopular views will be driven underground where they will be more difficult to counter and their advocates talk only to each other.

And just to tie things together nicely, there is very little evidence to show hate crimes laws prevent hate crimes. They do, however, inspire plenty of disrespect of law, as alcohol prohibition did, another occasion when government went too far.

Now some of the things critics of hate crimes laws warned against are coming to pass. Donald Trump supporters are using those same hate crimes laws to try to increase punishment of anti-Trump behavior.

In Maryland, two Baltimore college students were charged with hate crimes for torching a Donald Trump billboard on April 14. It was the first known time that such a charge had been brought for actions against the rich real estate moguls with bad hair minority, and the charges were soon dropped. But it would be easy to imagine the charge being carried through to trial in some jurisdictions like Texas or Louisiana.

California Trump supporters “claimed some of the Trump supporters were victims of hate crimes when they were confronted by angry counter-protesters Saturday on Hollywood Boulevard and at Bolsa Chica State Beach in Huntington Beach,” according to one news report.

Then, on the other side, the actions of Trump supporters are also being defined as hate crimes. Muslims, blacks, Indians, gays and others and the places they frequent are targets of physical attacks, bomb threats, vandalism and harassment, allegedly by Trump supporters or people inspired by Trump’s shoddy rhetoric. But physical attacks, bomb threats, vandalism and harassment are already prosecutable. No hate crime enhancement is needed.

With abundant justification, conservatives like Kevin D. Williamson point out that supporters of hate crimes are now making the case “that the people pushing ideas contrary to yours are racists and anti-Semites, that they hate women and homosexuals and Muslims and foreigners, that they could not possibly be correct on the policy questions, because they are moral monsters.

The two Maryland students could still face prison and fines for trespass, several counts of destruction of property (two political signs and one commercial sign and nearby property), hindering a police officer, and second-degree arson. The hate crime charge was never needed. The same was true of the damage to the Las Vegas synagogue cited by Rep. Rosen.

Hate crimes laws are not a tool against hate. They are a political tool in favor of certain U.S. factions, using the power of law to suppress unpopular opinion.

If haters truly commit crimes, the crimes themselves can be punished. There is no need – except a political need by legislators to please their constituents – to punish opinion itself.

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.

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