Sunday, January 20, 2013

Having Governments Declare Hate Groups as Hate Groups is a Bad Idea

Liberals and progressives, just like right wingers, neo-confederates, and gun nuts, have been promoting dubious ideas on the White House petition site.  More than 800,000  reacted to President Obama's re-election in multiple petitions for their states to secede from the United States. After the Sandy Hook tragedy, nearly fifty thousand have petitioned for CNN talk show host Piers Morgan to be deported back to England because of his support for gun control.

Not to outdone, over 300,000 have petitioned for the hateful Westboro Baptist Church to be officially declared a hate group. It is said to be the most signatures on an individual petition in the history of the White House petition site.

Here is the text of the petition
This group has been recognized as a hate group by organizations, such as The Southern Poverty Law Center, and has repeatedly displayed the actions typical of hate groups.

Their actions have been directed at many groups, including homosexuals, military, Jewish people and even other Christians. They pose a threat to the welfare and treatment of others and will not improve without some form of imposed regulation.
Another petition , with close to 100.00 signers, references the White House petition and urges the FBI
to officially designate the Westboro Baptist Church as a hate group, urging the IRS to revoke the organization's tax-exempt status and increasing law enforcement's ability to block them from disrupting private funerals.
Not only is this is a really noxious proposal, it is also misguided. I've been asked to sign it several times on both Facebook and Twitter. I'm sure many signed it just to let off steam at the reprehensible behavior and disgusting ideas of Fred Phelps and family, which have made Westboro the symbol of anti-gay bigotry, even though it is tiny, marginal, and counterproductive group.  Its raw, unfiltered hatred is probably a net plus for gay rights, discrediting the antigay cause. The petitions makes its signers feel good, but it diverts attention from the really powerful groups which support antigay bigotry and legislation in the United States and internationally. The petitions make the statement that anti-bigotry is wrong --and the statement that we should abandon the first amendment in favor of having government agencies, whether the President or the FBI, declare some speech to be banned.

There is simply no process today in the United States to legally recognize  an organization as a "hate group."  And that's a good thing.  We don't proscribe groups because we don't like their views.  It is even allowed for individuals and groups to advocate the overthrow of the government as long as they don't advocate imminent action.

And, why, would we trust the FBI,  which in its internal documents has labelled the Occupy movement as a domestic terrorist organization, to make public judgments on whether this or that organization should be labelled a "hate group?"

As Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall argued
the First Amendment means that government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content. To permit the continued building of our politics and culture, and to assure self-fulfillment for each individual, our people are guaranteed the right to express any thought, free from government censorship. The essence of this forbidden censorship is content control. Any restriction on expressive activity because of its content would completely undercut the 'profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.
The anti-Westboro petition confuses speech and actions.  It says that Westboro "displayed the actions that are typical of hate groups."  And that their "actions" "pose a threat to the welfare and treatment of others...." But there differences in what hate groups do.  The SPLC states that inclusion on the list "does not imply a group advocates or engages in violence or other criminal activity."  So far as I know Westboro has never incited attacks on gay people.  Their placards say "God Hates Fags" not "Kill Gays." They have, again so far as I know, obeyed ordinances and requirements that mandate that they conduct their protests a certain distance from funerals. 

The best way to oppose the hatred of Westboro is to either ignore them or to arrange counter-protests., not to have the government but them on a proscribed list.

In the past, the American government has put groups on proscribed lists. During the first red scare at the end of WWI, laws forbade the admission into the United States of immigrants who belonged to groups 'which advocated the overthrow of the Government of the United States by force or violence." Many states passed "criminal syndicalism" laws which in effect  made membership in radical  union organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World illegal. More than twenty states, including Kansas, made it illegal to display red flags. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer listed 12 organizations, membership in which would automatically lead to exclusion or deportation for alien members. However, the deportation proceedings aroused such a public clamor that the list,  was withdrawn. In 1947, Attorney General Tom Clark issued a list of 11 subversive organization including Communist fronts, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Nazi Party.  Within a decade, the list had grown to more than 100 organizations, even though many groups were defunct.

Membership, past or present, in these subversive groups  was a bar to federal employment. Many state and local government employees were required to sign a loyalty oath that they were not members of a subversive group, including but not limited to those on the AG's list.  Teachers were also required to sign loyalty oaths.  The Federal government required defense contractors and ports to clear their employees. Courts, at the time, held that other employers could fire employees who were members of "subversive" organizations.  In 1952 Congress passed a law "which provided that "no housing unit constructed under the United States Housing Act of 1937, as amended, shall be occupied by a person who is a member of an organization designated as subversive by the Attorney General."

Moreover, the subversive list had no real process for organizations to appeal their classification or to see the evidence against them. It took more than a decade for the Independent Socialist League an anti-Stalinist, left-wing group to get removed from the AG's list.  Lewis Coser wrote in an early 1954 issue  of Dissent:
For six years now a conspicuously powerless group called the Independent Socialist League, in political complexion Marxist and premature antiStalinist, has been on the Attorney General’s “Subversive List.” This disgraceful amalgam with Stalinist organizations has done the members of the ISL considerable harm. Yet hardly a voice has been raised in the official circles of liberalism to fight against this injustice. For what does it matter? Everyone knows that in difficult times minor injustices are unavoidable, and besides it is such an insignificant group. . . .

Now, finally, the Attorney General has filed a “bill of particulars” against the ISL. The group is not even accused of favoring “the violent overthrow” of the government; in substance and apart from the gross ignorance of the Attorney General’s charges, the ISL is accused of nothing more than being Marxist and desiring the abolition of capitalism. This, the Attorney General implies, is enough to make it “subversive.”
 (See also the July 1955 issue of the ISL's newspaper Labor Action and pages 5-8 of the  January 27, 1958 issue)

The Industrial Workers of the World was also, quite unjustly, included on the AG's list.

Let's not go down the road of governmental  proscription of organizations for being  "subversive" or "hate groups."

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