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Policing Speech

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eye on the news

Policing Speech

Bill de Blasio wants the NYPD to investigate constitutionally protected conduct. March 19, 2021
New York
Public safety

Amid a staggering wave of gun violence in New York City, with shootings this year measuring 42 percent higher than the same period in 2020, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he plans to deploy the NYPD to track down and question people who have expressed “hate,” albeit without committing any crime or violation.

Speaking to reporters about anti-Asian attacks that have occurred around the country, the mayor encouraged people who have “witnessed or experienced any act of hate” to report it. “Even if something is not a criminal case,” the mayor explained, “a perpetrator being confronted by the city, whether it’s NYPD or another agency, and being told that what they’ve done was very hurtful to another person and could if ever repeated, lead to criminal charges, that’s another important piece of the puzzle.”

Asked how the NYPD would confront someone who has done something “hateful” but committed no crime, de Blasio enlarged on his prescription. “One of the things officers are trained to do is to give warnings,” he said. “If someone has done something wrong, but not rising to a criminal level, it’s perfectly appropriate for an NYPD officer to talk to them to say that was not appropriate. . . . I assure you if an NYPD officer calls you or shows up at your door to ask about something that you did, that makes people think twice.”

The mayor did not go into detail about the kind of behavior he was talking about, but we can surmise—since he explicitly stated that it wouldn’t rise to the level of criminality—that it must involve speech. Racial slurs or negative references to racial or ethnic identity, while nasty and rightfully unacceptable in civil society, are generally not prosecutable. Promising to involve the police in pursuing people who make intemperate, obnoxious remarks seems like an odd way to prioritize public-safety concerns.

The idea of a special category of “hateful” crime violates good sense. If a crime is a crime, sufficient mechanisms already exist to prosecute and punish offenders. What makes beating someone up “hatefully” worse than beating them up . . . lovably? The point of hate crimes as a category is to express how especially heinous society finds crimes motivated by ideologies of bias like racism, anti-Semitism, or homophobia. To this extent, hate crimes legislation essentially creates a class of political crime.

Hating people on the basis of their race, creed, or sexuality does not constitute legitimate politics for anyone but fringe extremists—but expressions of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia, while loathsome, are constitutionally protected in the United States. What de Blasio seems to be proposing—sending the police after people who say things that his administration finds offensive—is hard to distinguish from what goes on in authoritarian police states, where any political speech that opposes the government is illegal.

Following the national Democratic Party line, de Blasio is explicitly connecting bias crimes of all sorts to Donald Trump and his followers. “This is a problem, and let’s be blunt and honest,” he said. “It’s a problem that emerged, particularly in the last four years in this city and in this country. We all know that the forces of hatred were unleashed by Donald Trump.” Making this claim, in conjunction with a promise to investigate constitutionally protected speech, clears a path for the NYPD to start harassing Trump supporters, Second Amendment activists, or anyone else whom de Blasio finds politically objectionable.

The irony is that Mayor de Blasio, following the demands of the anti-policing movement, has made clear that he wants less NYPD involvement in public safety. This week, he unveiled an anti-gun-violence program that involves not cops but community groups and “violence interrupters,” and he has promised to reduce police response to mental-illness crisis calls. The mayor has thus clarified his beliefs: real crime in New York City is overpoliced, while speech is over-tolerated.

Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

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