By a vote of 237 - 180 the House of Representatives passed the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007.
The bill builds upon legislation from 1994 by expanding the categories of hate crime to include gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability. It also allows federal law enforcement officials to assist state, local, or tribal law enforcement officials - at their request - in the investigation and/or prosecution of felonies, crimes of violence, and hate crimes.
There has been much misinformation regarding what the bill does, specifically relating to freedom of speech as protected by the first amendment. It seems that many fear that this bill makes derogatory comments, such as calling someone a "faggot" a hate crime. This is totally false.
Firstly, there must be a criminal action to begin with. The designation of "hate crime" does not come until after a crime has already been committed. Calling someone names, though cruel, is not a crime and has not been made criminal by this bill.
The definition of "hate crime" is as follows:
"`hate crime' means a crime in which the defendant intentionally selects a victim, or in the case of a property crime, the property that is the object of the crime, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation of any person."Hateful speech is not a crime and is not made criminal by this definition, which is from 1994 by the way. (The current bill cites this definition. Sec. 2)
The bill further clarifies by describing two categories of "hate crime acts" in Section 249. Both categories explain that one must "willfully cause bodily injury" or "attempt to cause bodily injury" in the first place.
How does the prosecution know if the victim has been selected because of one of the characteristics in the above definition? Well, this is where the derogatory speech comes in, and it's best explained by example.
Joe has just committed a "crime of violence" against someone. However, the victim or other witness heard Joe using one of the above mentioned discriminatory slurs immediately before, during, or after the assault. If there is enough evidence (beyond a reasonable doubt, of course) that Joe's actions were motivated by hatred of one of the previously mentioned characteristics of the victim, he has committed a hate crime. The bill notes (Sec. 249 d) that any such evidence must "specifically relate to that offense;" which means that something Joe said 6 months ago, or even earlier that day cannot be submitted as evidence.
Furthermore, if you're still not convinced that the bill doesn't encroach upon free speech, they've included this little gem:
Section 8. Rule Of Construction. "Nothing in this Act, or the amendments made by this Act, shall be construed to prohibit any expressive conduct protected from legal prohibition by, or any activities protected by the free speech or free exercise clauses of, the First Amendment to the Constitution."
Many people are insisting that murder is murder, crime is crime and that it is ill-conceived to make a distinction for hate crimes. Here is a somewhat long rebuttal of this sentiment. These are two of the simplest, yet to-the-point explanations of why a distinction should be made:
"A hate crime IS different than a simple murder or assault as it incites fear into a specific community. If a group of KKK members came into your community and lynched an African-American man this would incite fear among African-Americans. Similarly, if a Neo-Nazi spray paints a swastika on a synagogue this would incite fear into the Jewish community. An essential part of our judicial system is to ensure public safety and maintain public order. A hate crime affects more than just the one person who gets physically harmed -- it provokes fear into an entire community. That is the difference."
"The only persuasive argument I've seen is given in the bill (Sec 2.2 and 2.5). Basically, if you attack someone because they belong to a specific group, you've also (negatively) affected that group. In any crime, those directly connected to the victim will be affected. If the crime is motivated due to hatred of a group, everyone in that group is affected, not just those with a direct connection to the victim. Since the effects are farther reaching, it makes sense to me that the crime would be considered more severe."