Hate Crime Legislation Up for Vote

Bruce Nolan, Times-Picayune, December 4, 2007

The New Orleans City Council appears headed toward the frontier of hate crime legislation with a proposal to make it a crime to intimidate someone with a noose, a swastika, a burning cross or “any symbol” deliberately chosen to frighten.

Council President Arnie Fielkow’s proposal was roundly praised by a lineup of civil rights and tolerance groups at a Monday morning City Hall hearing. Councilwoman Shelley Midura said the legislation will almost certainly pass unanimously at Thursday’s council meeting.

The act refers to “the crime of intimidation by use of hate symbols.” It defines the crime as placing a burning cross, a swastika or a noose on another’s property, a highway or public place “with the intent of intimidating any person or group of persons.”

Another section of the ordinance broadens the list of banned symbols beyond those three to include “any symbol” deployed on another’s property, a highway or public place to intimidate another.

A similar but more limited prohibition already exists in state law.

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But Fielkow’s legislation is broader in two ways:

It would make it a crime punishable by a $500 fine and six months in jail to deploy “any” symbol of hate in a public place when intended as an act of intimidation. That covers more than burning crosses, as envisioned in state law, Fielkow said.

It also defines the mere display as criminal, without an accompanying act such as vandalism or trespass.

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Fielkow said his proposal is born out of concern that incidents communicating hate are proliferating around the country since widely publicized racial unrest in Jena, which reportedly began with a noose left in a schoolyard oak tree allegedly to intimidate black students.

Several Jefferson Parish supervisors recently were disciplined for allowing a noose and several other racially charged symbols to be displayed in a government office.

Fielkow also read into the record nearly a dozen recent incidents around the country in which nooses were displayed for black people to find in offices or other work spaces.

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Supporters of the legislation included representatives of the city’s Human Relations Commission; the Anti-Defamation League; the Urban League; the NAACP; the Forum for Equality, a gay rights advocacy group; and the Common Good, a broad, clergy-based nonprofit.

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But the American Civil Liberties Union, which was not invited to the hearing, said it would oppose Fielkow’s proposal.

“This is an attempt to regulate people’s thought processes. Our position is that people can be accountable for the harm they do, but not the thought underlying the harm,” Executive Director Marjorie Esman said.

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