04.28.09

Statement On The Introduction Of The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act Of 2009

Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, this is National Crime Victims' Rights Week--a time when communities in Vermont and across the Nation recognize the needs of crime victims, and work together to promote victims' rights and services. There is no more important time than now to renew our commitment to address the needs of crime victims and their families.

Today, I am pleased to join Senator Kennedy, Senator Collins, and more than 30 other Senators from both sides of the aisle to reintroduce the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. This is a bipartisan bill designed to combat crimes that have long terrorized communities and remain a serious problem in this country. This legislation is a matter of simple justice. It is past time for Congress to enact this bill and strengthen the Federal Government's role in preventing and punishing crimes motivated by hate.

I commend Senator Kennedyfor his leadership over the last decade in working to expand our Federal hate crimes law, and I am proud to once again be an original cosponsor of this legislation. A bipartisan majority of the Members in the House of Representatives voted to pass this legislation in the last Congress. Unfortunately, there were partisan attempts to filibuster and prevent passage of the Senate bill. The measure was ultimately attached to the Department of Defense Authorization bill with the bipartisan support of 60 Senators. While I am disappointed that the hate crime provision was taken out of that bill at conference, I am hopeful that our efforts to enact this civil rights measure into law will be successful this year.

Violent crimes motivated by prejudice and hate are tragedies that haunt American history. From the lynchings that plagued race relations for more than a century, to the well-publicized slayings of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., in the 1990s, this is a story that we have heard too often in this country. Unfortunately, in my home state of Vermont, there have been two attacks in recent years that appear to have been motivated by the victims' religion or sexual orientation.

Perhaps the most persuasive evidence that hate crimes are becoming more prevalent and more nationalized is a leaked copy of the Department of Homeland Security report on violent extremism in the United States. The report is nothing short of chilling.

The DHS report found that ``the economic downturn and the election of the first African American president present unique drivers for rightwing radicalization and recruitment'' and these elements in turn have the potential to drive hate groups to carry out violence. It also found that anti-immigrant fervor by organized hate groups ``has the potential to turn violent.'' The DHS report concluded that the ``advent of the Internet'' has potentially made ``extremist individuals and groups more dangerous and the consequences of their violence more severe.''

Of course, these findings comport with a recent Southern Poverty Law Center, SPLC, report on hate group activity in the United States entitled ``The Year in Hate.'' The SPLC repot found that activity by known domestic hate groups has increased by 50 percent since 2000, from 602 hate groups in 2000, to 926 hate groups in 2008. The recent and rapid growth in hate group activity is simply astonishing.

It remains painfully clear that as a Nation, we still have serious work to do in protecting all Americans from these crimes and in ensuring equal rights for all our citizens. While the answer to hate and bigotry must ultimately be found in increased tolerance, strengthening our Federal hate crimes laws is a step in the right direction.

The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 improves existing law by making it easier for Federal authorities to investigate and prosecute crimes based on race, color, religion, and national origin. Victims will no longer have to engage in a narrow range of activities, such as serving as a juror, to be protected under Federal law. This bill also expands Federal protections to include the problem of hate crimes committed against people because of their sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability, which is a key and long-overdue expansion of protection. Finally, this bill provides assistance and resources to state, local, and tribal law enforcement to address hate crimes.

This bill strengthens Federal jurisdiction over hate crimes as a back-up, but not a substitute, for state and local law enforcement. States will still bear primary responsibility for prosecuting most hate crimes, which is important to me as a former state prosecutor. In a sign that this legislation respects the proper balance between Federal and local authority, it has received strong bipartisan support from state and local law enforcement organizations across the country.

Moreover, this bill accomplishes the critically important goal of protecting all of our citizens without compromising our constitutional responsibilities. It is a tool for combating acts and threats of violence motivated by hatred and bigotry. But it does not target pure speech, however offensive or disagreeable. The Constitution does not permit us in Congress to prohibit the expression of an idea simply because we disagree with it. To paraphrase Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Constitution protects not only freedom for the thought and expression we agree with, but freedom for the thought that we hate. I am devoted to that principle, and I am confident that this bill does not contradict it.

We crafted this legislation after long and thoughtful consultation with many of the advocates who work so hard to promote civil rights and with Justice Department attorneys in the field who work on hate crimes prosecutions every day. It contains changes to Federal hate crime law that will improve the law's operation and implementation. I want to thank the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Human Rights First, and the more than 300 law enforcement, civil rights, religious, and other professional organizations for their assistance with and support for this legislation, and for their tireless work on behalf of hate crimes victims in the United States.

The crimes targeted in this bill are particularly pernicious crimes that affect more than just their victims and those victims' families. They inspire fear in those who have no connection to the victim other than a shared characteristic such as race or sexual orientation. That is wrong. All Americans have the right to live, travel and gather where they choose. In the past we have responded as a Nation to deter and to punish violent denials of civil rights. We have enacted Federal laws to protect the civil rights of all of our citizens for nearly 150 years.

The Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act continues that great and honorable tradition, and brings us one step closer towards ensuring an America that values tolerance and protects all of its people. I hope all Senators will support passing this important bipartisan bill this year.

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