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When Does Free Speech Become a Hate Crime?

A look at Connecticut's hate crimes and constitutional free speech in light of a controversial Wilton Twitter account.

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The birds have been chirping about a hate messaging Twitter user. The individual, , had been posting a stream of offensive, hateful comments aimed at multiple minorities. The offensive tweets are as follows:

“#IWillNeverUnderstandWhy people think we're racist? We love black people... Everyone should own one.“

“F*ck Darien. Since they don't allow Jews to live in their town, they dump them on our land!”

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech…” The Supreme Court has interpreted some exceptions to the speech that is protected by the First Amendment. The First Amendment to the Constitution protects hate speech with certain limited exceptions.  Certain types of speech defined by the Supreme Court can be regulated. Those that could apply to hate speech on the Internet include speech advocating lawless action, fighting words, and threats. Hate speech that rises to the level of harassment, threats or violence can morph into a hate crime.

So the question is, should the Twitter users speech be banned simply because we find it offensive?

The user’s words are probably protected because they do not fall within any of the exceptions of the freedom of speech. The method in which the obviously racist comments were apparently communicated does not threaten force or incite riot. The tweets did not target a specific person or persons in order to be defamation. Federal statutes have long made racist, sexist and nationalistic motivation in crimes an aggravating circumstance, but there must first be an underlying crime, which there does not appear to be in this case.

In Connecticut, there are several hate crimes laws that address hate speech on the Internet. Hate speech that threatens, intimidates, or harasses could be punished under these statutes (CGS §§53-37b, 53a-40a, 53a-181b). CGS § 53-37 addresses speech that ridicules a person. There are no CT cases interpreting this statute. Additionally, constitutionality is questionable under the Supreme Court’s rulings, so the law is somewhat unsettled.

For now, Twitter has taken matters into it’s own hands. As many social media websites do, Twitter has terms of use that forbid the use of their service for criminal purposes, to defame, to threaten or to incite riots, mirroring the protections of the First Amendment. Again, ‘YouLiveInWilton’ violated none of these. However, Twitter also reserves the right to change these rules and to block content they deem unfit at any time. Twitter has gone ahead and blocked ‘YouLiveInWilton’, removing the profile and all tweets associated with it. The Twitter account twitter.com/youliveinwilton has since been deleted.

Richard P. Hastings is a Connecticut personal injury lawyer at Hastings, Cohan & Walsh, LLP, with offices throughout the state. A graduate of Fordham Law School, he has been named a New England Super Lawyer and is the author of the books: "The Crash Course on Child Injury Claims"; "The Crash Course on Personal Injury Claims in Connecticut" and "The Crash Course on Motorcycle Accidents." He has also co-authored the best selling book "Wolf in Sheep's Clothing- What Your Insurance Company Doesn't Want You to Know and Won't Tell You Until It's Too Late!" He can be reached at 1(888)CTLAW-00 or by visiting www.hcwlaw.com.

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