Hate Crimes

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(HOST) Commentator John Scagliotti is a documentary filmmaker dedicated to the exploration of issues important to the gay community.  He says that since Vermont was one of the first states to pass hate crime legislation that covered gays and lesbians as a special category – it comes as something of a surprise to learn that such attacks continue in our state..

(SCAGLIOTTI) SafeSpace is a social service program in Burlington that works to end physical, sexual, and emotional violence for gay  people. In 2007 31 incidents of hate violence were reported to SafeSpace. It is consistently reported that one of the most common hate crime motivations in Vermont is based on sexual orientation and since opening its doors in 2002 more than 275 survivors of hate violence have requested SafeSpace services.

In Saint Albans recently, vehicles owned by a civil-union couple were vandalized. They were spray painted with anti-gay slogans, and their tires were slashed. The incident is being prosecuted as a hate crime and the case is moving through the court system.  The penalties for hate crimes can be rather hefty in Vermont. For example, a crime leading to a sentence of one year in jail can result in an additional two more years in prison if it can be proven that a hate factor was involved.

Now it’s been close to twenty years since hate crime legislation came about in this State .  But on the national scene, our Congress has been resisting a coalition of women and gay groups like the Human Rights Campaign to add gender and sexual orientation to the national Hate Crime Law.  

Some of the major groups fighting successfully against these changes are right wing religious organizations like the Family Research Council.  They feel adding gay people would make the new laws "Thought Crimes."    And in fact, they point out that in some places, Christians have been arrested for making anti-gay statements.

Now, I’ve been bashed by people screaming anti-gay slogans, so I know first-hand the horror of hate.  And while it seems strange to be on the side of the Family Research Council, I have to agree that hate crimes come with a lot of anti-freedom of speech thinking written into them. I’m worried that this could infringe upon the civil rights of all people and that it could inhibit my own freedom to fight against prejudice and injustice as I see it.   For example some of my beliefs would be seen as blasphemous in a Muslim fundamentalist theocratic state and I would be thrown in jail if not hung for stating them.

If I am physically attacked for being gay, I want the full protection of the law applied vigorously to the attacker.   But I don’t need for my attacker to be given extra punishment simply for hating me for being gay.  Instead I would rather see more funds go to the educational outreach resources of organizations like SafeSpace.   Trying to draw a line between hate and free speech is problematic in a truly democratic society, and leads to a slope that’s too slippery for words – especially words like those that were framed so carefully by the founders in our Bill of Rights.

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