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Benjamin Smith’s legacy: less freedom?

By Scott Tibbs, September 1, 1999

On July 2-4, former IU Student Benjamin “August” Smith went on a shooting rampage against Jews, blacks, Asians and others. His actions resulted in the death of Ricky Byrdsong and IU Graduate student Won-Joon Yoon, who was shot down in front of his church on Independence Day.

In the wake of the Smith shootings, people are calling for government to “do something”. That “something” seems to be taking the shape of hate crime laws, although some are even suggesting that so-called “hate speech” be limited in clear violation of the First Amendment. A poll on the Indiana Daily Student web page showed that a majority of people who answered the poll believe that Indiana University should be taking steps to restrict hate speech.

This is a terrible idea. Before Smith lashed out in murderous rage, I wrote two articles on this subject, one in the IDS and one in Hoosier Review. I had no idea that Smith was capable of such violence when I wrote those articles, and even though Smith was revealed to be even more of a degenerate than we all thought he was, I still stand by the principle of free speech. The answer to hate speech is not censorship. By taking away the freedom of Americans to speak their minds, we cede victory to Smith and his ilk. These people have no respect for freedom, and by limiting their First Amendment rights we are stooping to their level.

If IU starts limiting hate speech, it won’t be long until other student groups start feeling the heat. Christian groups won’t be able to speak about what the Bible says about homosexuality, because that would be “hateful”. Political speech could be curtailed as well. In the Spring of 1996, the IU College Democrats held an event they dubbed the “Contract on Hostettler”, with the words in a simulated rifle sight. If this was not hate speech, I do not know what is, yet the CD’s still have the right to publish such offensive material.

The answer to hate speech is more speech. Get the message of tolerance and respect out in the public eye, and trust that the American people have enough sense to accept it. Most Americans are not so stupid as to blindly follow the latest demagogue like lemmings off a cliff.

In any case, review of Smith’s history shows he was a common thug. He was a thug before he got involved in racist hate groups, and he was a thug afterward. Restricting his right to free speech wouldn’t have changed that fact.

The issue of hate crimes is a bit trickier, but it is also bad policy. If someone commits a crime, we should punish their actions, not their thoughts. If Smith had attacked his victims not out of racial hatred but just for the pleasure of doing so, would the death of Won Joon-Yoon have been any less tragic? Or if Smith had murdered Yoon for money, would the crime have been any less reprehensible? Of course not. Murder is murder, regardless of the motive, and all murder should be punished the same way.

Some people argue hate crimes should be punished more severely because they impact an entire segment of the population. When a psychopath in California shot up a Jewish day care center, he forced synagogues across the country to consider stricter security measures, especially during the High Holy Days. But doesn’t random, senseless crime do the same thing? Don’t most people lock their doors at night for fear of who might come in?

Of course motivation should be taken into account when dealing with criminals. If a person has a history of being involved in racist hate groups, it may be easier to prove he planned a spree of violence against minorities instead of just snapping.

But hate crime laws don’t punish actions they punish thought. Somehow a crime is worse if you have offensive beliefs. This is un-American.

But the most disturbing aspect of hate crime laws is it insinuates one class of victims is inherently more valuable than another class. Let’s assume the penalty for assault is X years. With a hate crime law in place, the penalty might be X+5. Is the victim of a random assault any less valuable than the victim of a race-motivated beating? If not, then why punish the racist more?