WASHINGTON (AP) — Incendiary rhetoric has seeped into 2016 presidential politics, surfaced in the public debate over accepting Syrian refugees into the U.S. and popped up repeatedly following terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch has expressed concern about the potential for an anti-Islam backlash similar to one that followed the Sept. 11 attacks and vowed that the Justice Department would punish “actions predicated on violent talk.”
“Advocates are certainly reporting to us an increased concern around incidents, threats and potential hate crimes that they’re bringing to our attention,” Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
But the spectrum of hateful expression is broad, encompassing acts that are clearly illegal — such as firebombing a mosque — as well as vague and distant threats that, while noxious, might well be protected by the First Amendment.
Establishing the line between protected speech and a federal hate crime can be challenging for prosecutors and courts and depends on the facts of each particular case. Here’s a look at how federal law treats hate speech:
WHAT DO FEDERAL LAWS HAVE TO SAY ABOUT THIS?
The signature hate crime statute — the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act — makes it illegal to physically harm someone based on their race, religion, national origin, gender or sexual orientation, among other characteristics.
DOESN’T THE CONSTITUTION ALLOW ME TO SAY WHATEVER I WANT?
To a large degree, yes. The First Amendment offers broad free speech protections and permits membership in organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan, that espouse hateful ideologies.
But while the Constitution gives latitude to hate speech and offensive rhetoric, court decisions in the last century have carved out notable — though narrow — exceptions to free speech guarantees and authorized prosecution for language deemed to fall out of bounds.
Comments intended as specific and immediate threats brush up against those protections, regardless of a person’s race or religion. So do personal, face-to-face comments meant to incite imminent lawlessness, such as a riot.
A 1942 Supreme Court decision called Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire — which involved a Jehovah’s Witness who cursed at a city marshal, calling him a “damned fascist” — articulated a “fighting words” doctrine that restricted insults intended to provoke an “immediate breach of the peace.”
ARE THREATS AGAINST THE LAW?
They certainly can be, but that depends on various factors. Determining what constitutes an actual threat — as opposed to a vague and far-off remark — is a tricky, fact-specific question.