Should a person who burns a gay pride flag be sentenced to 16 years in prison? I would hope that most of us would agree that the sentence is extreme. On more than one occasion I have been asked to comment on this absurd sentence from Iowa. I waited until I could get all the facts. And the facts illustrate why we need to reconsider hate crime legislation.
The man sentenced to 16 years has a long criminal history. He took a rainbow flag from a church and burned it in public. It is difficult to see how he should have been sentenced to much time behind bars considering that the Supreme Court ruled years ago that burning an American flag is akin to constitutionally protected free speech.
He was originally sentenced to prison for harassment and reckless use of fire. But the judge ruled that his action was a hate crime since he did say on TV that he “burned down their pride, plain and simple.” The hate crime charge is considered a felony and that became “strike three.” He was sentenced to 15 years in prison with an additional year for the reckless use of fire.
None of us like what he did or even what he said, but he didn’t deserve 16 years in prison. And that’s what is wrong with hate crime legislation. We should focus on what a perpetrator does with his hands without regard to what he thought in his mind. On some occasions we need to know what is in the mind of a criminal. For example, was the action intentional or accidental? Can the person distinguish right from wrong?
But in most cases, we should focus on the act, not the thought. Too often hate crime legislation blurs into the idea of a thoughtcrime George Orwell warned about in his book 1984. As a guest rightly noted, Orwell was right about the idea of big brother. He just got the date wrong. This absurd sentence for burning a gay pride flag illustrates the problem with hate crime legislation.