Denial of law license creates First Amendment martyr

Friday, March 5, 1999

White supremaci...
White supremacist Rev. Matt Hale of World Church of the Creator in his East Peoria, Ill., office.

Something tells me we’re playing right into Matthew Hale’s hands.

Hale, you will recall, is the white supremacist who recently was denied an Illinois law license because of his radical racial views. At the same time that he is appealing the character committee’s decision, he is basking in the attention paid these days to martyrs suffering on — or perhaps clinging to — the cross of political correctness.

Reporters write about Hale’s “church” and the Israeli flag that serves as a doormat in his home. The Anti-Defamation League and Alan Dershowitz rush to Hale’s defense. Broadcasters conduct interview after interview with Hale, all encouraging him to spew forth his hateful venom. We find Hale’s views offensive, the commentators predictably proclaim, but we must defend his right to express them.

The commentators, of course, are correct. The three-member panel of Illinois’ Committee on Character and Fitness, however well-meaning, had absolutely no basis to pronounce Hale unfit to practice law. Bar Admission Rule 4.2 directed the committee to examine Hale’s “record of conduct,” not his political views. Unless it found that Hale had committed unlawful acts or academic misconduct, the panel did not even have grounds to conduct the “further detailed inquiry” permitted by the rule.

By overstepping its bounds, the panel erred both legally and practically. Legally, the panel created a precedent that would deny a law license to anyone who disagreed with the current breadth of any of the fundamental rights recognized in the U.S. Constitution. Under the panel’s logic, would-be lawyers could not support a constitutional amendment banning flag-burning, advocate a different judicial interpretation of Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure law or urge stricter regulation of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. While white supremacy admittedly is a more radical political view, the First Amendment prohibits the government from punishing a person merely because his or her beliefs are at the time considered radical.

Practically, the panel erred when it treated Hale’s political views as worthy of serious consideration. Groups like Hale’s church are not small and unknown by design; they strive constantly for attention. However, their publicity efforts generally fail because most people simply don’t care about a handful of ultra-right wing misfits who see conspiratorial threats around every corner. By pausing to judge Hale’s beliefs, the panel dignified them as worthy of judging.

Instead of engaging in the moral debate that Hale is now enjoying, the panel should have simply dismissed Hale’s views as those of a sadly twisted and badly misguided young man. It should have reaffirmed the principle that no idea — no matter how radical, dangerous or outrageous — provides a basis to deny a law license or any other governmental privilege.

Finally, the panel should have cautioned Hale that radical, dangerous or outrageous conduct is judged under entirely different rules and reminded him that any attempt to break the law or to deprive a non-white of his or her civil rights would subject him to a wide range of sanctions, including the loss of his license.

Had it dealt with Hale’s application this way, the panel would have created just another first-year lawyer scrambling to find a way to repay his student loans. The judging of Hale’s moral character then would be left — as it should be — to potential employers and prospective clients. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t imagine that many people would be interested in hiring the Pontifex Maximus (Supreme Leader) of the World Church of the Creator to handle a real-estate closing.

The panel instead created a First Amendment martyr. While its decision likely will be overturned and Hale eventually will fade from public view, the panel’s decision has placed him and his political opinions in the middle of a well-publicized debate. Unfortunately for all who believe in equal rights, Matthew Hale now is doing considerably more damage without a law license than he ever could do with one.