Liberal and rich Montgomery County does not leap to mind when the subject is Klan-type bigotry. But even in that slice of comfortable America, race hate is on the rise--or at least the haters have become bolder.
Hate appears to be a growth industry in Montgomery County. Shopping center customers report finding pro- Nazi fliers on their windshields. In Potomac, perhaps the richest area of the county, customers at a bank found Ku Klux Klan literature alongside the bank's deposit slips.
In just the first half of last year, Maryland reported 141 anti-black or anti-Jewish incidents, ranging from hate mail and harassment to cross burnings and assaults. Not even elementary schools and public libraries have been immune from the panderers of racism.
Luiz Simmons, a member of the Montgomery County delegation to the Maryland House of Delegates, thinks it's time to call a halt. The Silver Spring legislator has introduced a bill that would outlaw hate literature and punish its distributors with fines and jail terms.
The guessing is that he will find a lot of support for his measure when hearings are held in the next couple of weeks. After all, not many of the state's lawmakers will want to go on record as favoring hatred.
But that might not be enough to produce a defensible statute. John Roemer, executive director of the Maryland Civil Liberties Union, hasn't seen the Simmons bill, but he has seen enough similar legislation to have an easy opinion.
"It's unconstitutional," he said in an interview. "It's an infringement on the free-speech protection of the First Amendment." He has strong doubts the proposal could pass Supreme Court muster--or that it ought to.
The high court did uphold an Illinois statute that is similar to what Simmons has proposed. But that was 20 years ago, and according to Boemer, that case has never since been cited successfully.
When the community of Skokie, Ill., passed an anti-hate measure a few years ago in an attempt to forestall a planned Nazi parade, the courts threw it out--even though it was modeled on the state ordinance.
"I understand what Simmons is trying to do," Roemer said, "and I agree with his sentiments. The problem is, these statutes reach overbroadly. It is extremely difficult to constrain the laws to their intended purpose.
"For example, a lot of Americans are anti-Soviet to the point of being anti- Russian. It is easily conceivable that some of the things they say might be punishable under an anti-hate statute. Lots of blacks might hate South African Boers and find their remarks bring them in conflict with the law. Back during the '60s, I remember castigating southerners--calling them a bunch of racist bastards. Now I may have been excessive at the time, but I don't think it's the kind of excess that ought to land me in jail.
"It's even conceivable that some of the things we might say about the hate groups might be unlawful under the statute--like saying they are a bunch of Nazis and we ought to run them out of town."
But the problem isn't just one of legislative draftsmanship, Roemer believes; the very idea is wrong. He would not extend First Amendment protection to words that tend to incite immediate disorder, but most of the stuff that enrages so many of us, Roemer believes, is "much closer to ideational discourse than to a real threat to the public peace." The fact that the ideas are repugnant and wrong does not mean they are constitutionally unprotected, he said.
Did he mean that there was nothing I could say to him--no name I could call him--during our telephone interview that he would consider unworthy of constitutional protection? Well, not quite. Courts have held that a telephone can be an instrument of intrusion, he said, and since I had initiated the call, I might be prosecuted for an invasion of his privacy, or under various telephone nuisance statutes. On the other hand, if he had called me names, the statutes wouldn't apply (since he hadn't phoned me) unless it could be shown that his words incited me to immediate violence--unlikely since I was in Washington and he was in Baltimore.
It is one of the things liberals find so infuriating about civil libertarians-- their willingness to extend their principles to the manifestly unprincipled. But Roemer stands on his principles-- and not just for constitutional reasons. He thinks we may be making too big a deal of the resurgent hatemongers.
"The only people who listen to this stuff are people who already believe it," he said.
I'd feel better if I were sure he is right.