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Hate crimes package moves out of House committee

Michigan State Capitol in the winter
Michelle Jokisch Polo
Michigan State Capitol in the fall

Michigan House lawmakers voted hate crime legislation out of a state House committee Tuesday.

Currently the state has no law against hate crimes. The closest is the 1988 law outlawing “ethnic intimidation.”

It bans intimidating or threatening someone because of their race, color, religion, gender, and national origin. The bill package that moved out of committee would update the policy by adding protections for sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status, age, ethnicity, and association with any of the listed groups.

Package co-sponsor Representative Noah Arbit (D-West Bloomfield) said targeting someone because of a perceived identity deserves an extra layer of punishment.

“We can’t introduce a bill that’s going to get rid of racism, or islamophobia, or antisemitism, or transphobia, or whatever. But what we can do is tackle hate when it dovetails with a criminal act. That is the scope of these laws,” Arbit said during Tuesday’s House Criminal Justice Committee meeting.

The package would set various punishments, depending on the nature of the violation and the cost of property damage.

However, each violation would be considered a felony.

Arbit had helped lead another hate crime package through the House last year. But it stalled in the state Senate over free speech concerns.

Critics of that earlier package said it was ambiguous in its test to determine whether something fell under the category of a hate crime. Among concerns was a line referring to threats “by word or act,” to commit any of the banned actions.

Arbit said the new version of the package takes extra care to protect free speech.

“While free speech, including hate speech, is a protected right, no one has a constitutional right to commit a criminal act, or threaten to commit a criminal act, against someone else ... because of how they look, how they speak, how they worship, or who they love,” Arbit said.

The new package would explicitly ban using violence, causing bodily injury, stalking, damaging someone’s property, or a making “true threat” to do any of those things based on the mentioned identities.

A “true threat” would be identified as “a statement in which the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals, including unlawful property damage to the property of a particular individual or group of individuals.”

It would apply to “communication made with reckless disregard” but not if the person was unaware that their words could be taken as such threats.

The new package is now before the full House of Representatives awaiting further action.

Meanwhile, another similar version of the new hate crime legislation that the Senate previously passed remains in House committee.

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