Confederate flags at MLK church raise hate crime questions yet again

The hunt is on in Atlanta for two or more individuals who placed Confederate Battle Flags on the property of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church. Two men caught on surveillance cameras are being sought because, well… nobody is exactly sure yet.

Surveillance cameras caught images of two white males laying Confederate battle flags on the ground near the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church, but it wasn’t clear whether they had committed a crime.

Atlanta police Chief George Turner said Thursday his officers were working with federal authorities and hadn’t determined what, if any, charges might be sought. Turner said they had not ruled out a hate crime, though Georgia has no state hate crimes law.

An officer from the Atlanta FBI’s joint terrorism task force was on the scene “to better determine if any specific threats were received” and to provide support to Atlanta police, FBI Special Agent Steve Emmett said in an email.

The placing of the flags was the latest provocative act involving the Civil War-era symbol since nine black church members were gunned down during Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, and it happened in the heart of an area devoted to the slain civil rights leader, near his birthplace, his crypt and a center devoted to preserving his legacy.

So these people left confederate flags on the property, but apparently nothing else was disturbed. Given the location and the timing as related to the recent shooting, at a minimum this was in very poor taste and insensitive to the congregation. But was a crime committed? As noted, Georgia has a refreshing approach to the national trend of legislating against “thought crimes” and they have no so-called “hate crimes” on the books. One pastor at the church is referring to it as an act of terrorism. Others are mentioning that the FBI should be brought in along with the Justice Department to see if this can be handled as a federal hate crime.

Long time readers are likely already familiar with my feelings regarding thought crimes. The essence of the First Amendment in this country relies on the fact that we have to protect the right to unpopular thoughts, speech and other forms of expression which don’t cause direct harm to others. The short version of why this is can be summarized by reminding opponents that there is really not much need to protect popular speech. The question comes in what happens when the tide of public opinion turns and your popular speech becomes unpopular. This is why we protect the right of the KKK or Nazis or communists, socialists or vegans to march in the streets. You aren’t allowed to hurt someone else who poses no threat to you, but if you do we should prosecute you for the assault, not what you were thinking when it happened.

What crime was taking place here? Littering? Trespassing? (I’m not sure if a churchyard is closed to the public. It sounds unlikely.) As I said, it’s in horrible taste and if I were a member of the congregation I’m pretty sure that I would be quite offended. Unfortunately, we live in a free society where there is no assurance of not being offended by the speech of others when you venture out your door. (Sorry, college safe zone advocates, but we’re talking about things that happen among adults in the real world.)

In case you think I’m just defending people who may be popular with conservatives, let me pick on a very popular and frequently victimized group… Jews. There are laws all over the country which make it a very serious crime to spray paint a swastika on a temple. It’s offensive to be sure, but as much as you may not wish to hear it, that’s a case of vandalism and nothing more. When it comes to burning a cross on somebody’s lawn, there are a number of crimes involved, including trespassing and possibly arson. But the motive behind the act is free speech.

I’ll be interested to see what, if anything, the men who left those flags there are charged with. This is particularly true in light of the fact that Georgia doesn’t have “hate crime” laws. Will the Attorney General ride in and put them up on charges leading to a long stretch in prison? You can expect some trouble if that’s the case.

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