Ban on lawyer because of racist views is flawed policy

Monday, March 15, 1999

The character committee of the Illinois Bar had a tough decision: It could give Matt Hale a license to practice law or give the self-described white supremacist a big career boost.

It chose the latter.

Suddenly, Hale, an avowed racist, has moved into the big leagues of American media. No more Ricki Lake for him. No need to go back to the “Jerry Springer Show.” Now he’s “Today” show material.

Hale had played by the rules. He received a law degree from Southern Illinois University and passed the state bar exam.

Astoundingly, Hale even managed to land a job at a Champaign, Ill., law firm. (Don’t they ask about hobbies and outside interests in the job interview?) But Hale lost the job when the bar’s character committee, a panel that assesses the fitness and character of bar applicants, ruled that his highly visible advocacy of white supremacy disqualifies him to be a lawyer.

The panel wrote: “The balance of values that we strike leaves Matthew Hale free, as the First Amendment allows, to incite as much racial hatred as he desires and to attempt to carry out his life’s mission of depriving those he dislikes of their legal rights. … But in our view he cannot do this as an officer of the court.”

There’s no question that Hale promotes some truly ugly views. His Web site describes his “World Church of the Creator” as a “religion” built on hatred for non-whites. Sample sentiment: “Whereas Hitler’s program was similar to what we are proposing, we have learned from his failures and have made some significant changes.”

The reaction by the bar’s character committee is understandable, but it’s bad public policy. Are we prepared to ban someone from a profession simply because of his ideas? Hate crimes or illegal conduct would justify Hale’s exclusion, but do we take the next step of refusing a license because we find his beliefs reprehensible?

Hateful speech has a way of short-circuiting our principles. Zealots like Hale act as reverse Pied Pipers, drumming up intolerance wherever they go.

When Hale was profiled by the Daily Egyptian, there was a student backlash against the Southern Illinois University campus newspaper. So much for free press.

When Hale tried to give a speech to students at Illinois State University, the event was canceled because of his views. So much for freedom of assembly.

And now Hale is deprived of a license to practice law because of his views. So much for freedom of speech.

Hale is appealing the character committee’s decision and may yet get his license. If he does, one thing is certain:

He’ll know the First Amendment inside out.