Friday, April 16, 2010

'IT JUST POPPED OUT!": WHEN YOU ARE ACCUSED OF HATE SPEECH

You really can’t stand this one student at your school. You think he is obnoxious. One day, the two of you got into a screaming match. In the heat of the moment, you called him a certain stereotypically derogatory name. The next thing you know, your college or high school has notified you that you are being charged with hate speech and might be suspended.

If the alleged hate speech occurred while committing a crime, you may even be liable for increased penalties as a hate crime. Maybe you spray-painted a name on the side of someone’s door, or you repeatedly called or texted someone, while using derogatory terms about that person’s race, religion, disability, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Under Illinois law, you can be charged with a felony, receive additional fines and still be sued in civil court.

What can you do?

First and foremost, do not make any statements to the police or the school, before consulting an attorney. Any attempt to explain or justify your actions may be used against you and jeopardize your defense. What sounds like a truthful explanation to you may only dig you in deeper.

You should also not discuss this situation with anyone either in person, on the phone or electronically. Any texting or Facebook discussions of the event could end up as evidence in a suspension hearing or in a court of law.

To fight the suspension, an experienced attorney can help review your school’s policy manual. How is your offense defined in the policy manual? Does the school distinguish between events on and off school grounds? Did the school follow its own procedures in citing you? Are the proposed sanctions against you too severe under the school’s own guidelines?

In a criminal case, the State has to prove that you are guilty of a hate crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Can the State prove that it was you who spray-painted the house or sent the text messages? Was your crime really based on the perceived or actual race, gender, religion, disability, ethnicity or sexual orientation of the victim?

Are your words really even hate speech? One person’s idea of hate speech might be constitutionally protected expression in another context. The very definition of hate speech can be vague and elusive.

Even if the evidence against you seems overwhelming, an attorney may help you work out a reduced punishment or a plea to a lesser charge.

A qualified attorney can best help you evaluate your options and develop a strategy for your case. If you have questions about your situation, feel free to contact Matt Keenan at 847-568-0160 or email matt@mattkeenanlaw.com

Also see our related school law blog at http://northshoreschoollaw.com.

(Besides Skokie, Matt Keenan also serves clients in the communities of Arlington Heights, Buffalo Grove, Chicago, Deerfield, Des Plaines, Evanston, Glenview, Highland Park, Kenilworth, Morton Grove, Mount Prospect, Niles, Northbrook, Palatine, Park Ridge, Rolling Meadows, Schaumburg, Wilmette and Winnetka.)

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