Beating death renews calls for hate-crimes legislation

Thursday, October 15, 1998

The beating death of a gay University of Wyoming student has become a rallying point for lawmakers and gay-rights advocates nationwide seeking state and federal hate-crimes legislation to protect homosexuals from discrimination.


But in order to withstand court challenges, First Amendment advocates warn that such legislation must apply only to criminal activity and not to freedom of speech.


“You have to be very careful, because there are groups that would also like to criminalize speech that they would characterize as hateful,” said Tom McCoy, a constitutional law scholar at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “Even though someone’s speech might be hateful or racist, nonetheless it is protected speech.”


A hate-crimes bill introduced in Congress this year would broaden existing law to cover offenses motivated by a person’s gender, disability or sexual orientation, and would make it easier for federal authorities to step in and prosecute such crimes.


But Congress has not acted on the bill, other than to hold hearings.


Amid chants of “Now, now, now,” hundreds of mourners attending a vigil yesterday in Washington, D.C., urged Congress to pass the stalled bill before adjourning for the year.


The mourners gathered at the Capitol to remember 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, who died Monday at a Fort Collins, Colo., hospital, five days after he was found pistol-whipped and tied to a fence in near-freezing temperatures outside Laramie, Wyo. Police said robbery was the main motive for the attack, but Shepard apparently was chosen in part because he was gay.


“We take issue with those who say that we don’t need these laws,” said House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, echoing the sentiments of several speakers at the candlelight vigil.


“Pass hate-crimes legislation,” added Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla.


Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., an openly gay member of Congress, told vigil participants to learn the positions on gay and lesbian issues of every candidate running for election next month. “We can protect ourselves with our vote in November,” he said.


“We need to send the strongest possible signal as a nation that these crimes will not be tolerated in the United States,” added Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a sponsor of the hate-crimes bill in the Senate.


Attorney General Janet Reno met for more than an hour yesterday with representatives of more than a dozen gay and lesbian groups and renewed her call for Congress to pass the hate-crimes bill. Reno has ordered U.S. attorneys across the country to establish hate-crimes working groups with state and local authorities in their jurisdictions.


In Baltimore, Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also repeated his call for Congress to pass the Hate Crime Prevention Act.


In Albany, N.Y., a solemn crowd of about 250 people carried candles and sang songs outside the governor’s mansion in a demonstration against hate crimes Tuesday. New York also has no hate-crimes law for violent acts.


Meanwhile in Tennessee, two state legislators are considering pushing for hate-crimes laws in the wake of last week’s beating of Shepard and the racially motivated beating
death of a black man in June.


“It’s time for those of us who cherish life and believe it’s sacred to stand up and take a stand,” said state Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga. “We cannot permit anyone to perpetrate these crimes on any human beings. Yes, any human beings, regardless of sexual
orientation.”


“How many deaths will it take before we rise to a level of outrage,” Brown told The Chattanooga Times. “Crimes like this just heighten the awareness in America and Tennessee that this kind of hate lurks in the background.”


In June, James Byrd Jr., 49, was beaten and dragged to death behind a vehicle in Jasper, Texas. Police said the men charged in his death had ties to a white supremacy group.


State Sen. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, tried to pass a hate-crimes law in 1994 but couldn’t find a House sponsor. However, following the recent violence, he said he may file another hate-crimes bill when the 101st General Assembly convened in January.


Currently, 21 states and the District of Columbia have hate-crimes laws that include sexual orientation. Another 19 states have hate-crimes laws that do not include sexual orientation.


Ten states — including Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and Arkansas — have no hate-crimes legislation, according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.


And in Wyoming where Shepard was beaten, gay-rights proponents held a news conference Tuesday to urge legislators to pass a hate-crimes law.


“Wyoming has always reflected the epitome of the ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude,” said Walt Boulden, a friend of Shepard. “This horrible murder has shattered our ability to hide behind that type of stance.”


— From Associated Press reports.