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ACLU Says Hate Crimes Bill Protects Free Speech

Under a bill introduced by Senators Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) and supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, bigoted comments would still be considered protected speech

On Thursday, the ACLU praised the bill, the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007. The bill will allow federal law enforcement officers to more easily investigate and prosecute hate crimes. The ACLU said it was the first time it has been able to support a hate crimes bill because it balances the desire for a federal response with protections of free speech and association.

The bill punishes only the conduct of targeting someone for violence because of  race, color, national origin, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.

It allows bigoted speech or association with hate groups as evidence, but only if it is directly related to the crime. "It punishes acts of discrimination, not bigoted beliefs," said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, in a statement. "This bill demonstrates that it's possible to vigorously pursue criminal civil rights violations without chilling our First Amendment rights."

The FCC has received complaints about the racist comments of radio shock jock Don Imus , but its regulatory authority does not extend to bigoted comments short of hate speech that incites violence, similar to the limitation in the new bill.

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.