TOPICS > Politics

The Hate Crimes Question

August 11, 1999 at 12:00 AM EST


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Last month there was a shooting spree in the Midwest that also seemed fueled by racial and religious hatred. That episode sparked a debate about the difference between hate speech and free speech. Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW, Chicago, reports.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The headquarters of the World Church of the Creator are in the bedroom of this unassuming house in East Peoria, Illinois. With the flag of Israel on the floor and white power flags on the wall, it’s not hard to figure out the views of Matt Hale, leader of the so-called church, a church that believes in no deity, is anti-Christian, and has one simple message.

MATT HALE, World Church of the Creator: The basic belief of the church is that what is good for the white race is the highest virtue and what is bad for the white race the ultimate sin. That, in fact, is our golden rule, and that’s our main teaching; everything else revolves around that.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Internet has helped make the World Church of the Creator one of the fastest growing hate groups in the U.S.. Web pages call for a racial holy war or a Rahowa. It is the cry that ends every Hale speech to his followers.

MATT HALE: Let us win. Let us travel on this path together, you and I, my comrades, and together we will win a whiter and brighter world. Rahowa!


ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Hale insists the Rahowa will be non-violent and legal, even though it is called a war.

MATT HALE: So is the war on drugs, but no one’s killing drug dealers to my knowledge. The war on poverty isn’t killing poor people. And nor does the racial holy war mean that we intend to kill anyone.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But on the weekend of July 4th, one of Hale’s most active followers, 21-year-old Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, did kill people. A two-day shooting spree aimed at minorities left former Northwestern University Basketball Coach Ricky Byrdsong dead, Indiana University student Won Joon Yoon dead and six Orthodox Jews and three African-Americans wounded. Smith then took his own life. He had been a student at Indiana University, where in an interview nine months before his death he defended his right to distribute racist pamphlets.

BENJAMIN NATHANIEL SMITH: (October, 1998) The Church of the Creator is very dedicated to free speech. People call our literature hate literature but all it really is, is it’s the truth that reflects on the minorities negatively. I mean, it’s the facts. You can’t argue with the facts. And people want to stop it from being put out, but we’re determined to go by our constitutional rights, and that’s what we’re going to do.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Hale admits that he was in touch with Smith shortly before the murders, but denies any responsibility for Smith’s actions.

MATT HALE: I never would have told him to do this. I would’ve told him to be peaceful and legal as he always was before. He testified at my law license hearing and testified that I believe in the rule of law and that is certainly the case. We can win a lot more by being legal, by being peaceful, by being non-violent, by being constitutional. I influenced him to the extent of him distributing some literature. He distributed vast quantities of our church literature, and I’m very proud of him for that.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The pain for the families of the victims of Smith’s murderous spree was intense. Even so, the father of Won Joon Yoon spoke of love, not hate.

WON JOON, Victim’s Father: (speaking through interpreter) As we love our son, we too love Benjamin Smith. Therefore, I harbor no sense of anger against him, but I decry the fact that he has taken a life away.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But the president of the Korean-American Citizens Coalition saw Yoon’s death as a crime of hate.

SOYOUNG KWON, President, Korean-American Citizens Coalition: He died because he was an Asian. His death affects not only the Koreans, but it also affects all of us: The Asian-Americans, the Jewish community, the African-Americans, all of us.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Hale has had no response to Smith’s victims or their survivors.

MATT HALE: We really just don’t have anything to say to them. And that’s part of our church. We do not socialize with the other races.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: 15-year-old Ephraim Wolfe survived Smith’s bullets. Shot in the leg on the way home from Friday evening services at his temple, Wolfe still carries the bullet near his knee cap.

EPHRAIM WOLFE, Victim: When I was hit, I told the cop, one of the cops who came by, that the guy shot me because I was Jewish.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Wolfe’s father, a family physician, says he first reacted as a professional and assessed his son’s injuries as not life-threatening, but several days later –

DR. ROBERT WOLFE, Victim’s Father: I said “Oh, my God, he could have been killed, you know, a little higher, a little, you know — he could have blown his knee out and crippled him or, God forbid, like Mr. Byrdsong, been murdered.”

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The family has filed a civil lawsuit against Matt Hale and the World Church of the Creator. Family Attorney, Michael Bender.

MICHAEL BENDER, Wolfe’s Lawyer: And we’re going forward with the complaint, which says that Hale had an involvement. And although Hale did not pull the trigger, he does have responsibility.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The question of Matt Hale’s legal responsibility raises fundamental issues about the Constitution’s protection of free speech rights. The killing spree by Hale’s associates has even groups like the Anti-Defamation League, traditionally in the forefront of protecting free speech, ask if it’s time to impose some limitations on free speech rights. Anti-Defamation League Attorney Harlan Loeb has has tracked Hale and the World Church of the Creator for years. He calls it one of the most virulent hate groups in the country and says the questions Hale and Smith’s actions raise are troubling.

HARLAN LOEB: On the one hand, free speech is a very, very important — probably essential piece of our democracy. It enables the full flow of ideas to have a place in the marketplace of ideas and is a very, very essential piece of our democracy. On the other hand, you can’t always wrap yourself up in the first amendment and immunize yourself from any further scrutiny. I have first amendment rights, therefore, you can’t — I’m beyond recourse — there’s nothing that you can do to me because the first amendment will protect me from anything, which Hale is clearly trying to do.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But Hale maintains neither his words or the words of his church have crossed the line into an area where free speech can no longer be protected.

MATT HALE: The test that the Supreme Court has traditionally used is exhortations to imminent lawless action. This certainly has not been demonstrated with my church. We have never urged people to say “go and get him” or anything of that kind. And without any evidence to the contrary, the line has certainly not been crossed between free speech and illegal action.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The issue of Hale’s free speech rights was starkly raised when Hale was denied admission to the Illinois bar in April, despite having graduated from law school and passing the bar exam. The committee on character and fitness said Hale did not possess enough of either to be admitted to the bar. Hale was represented in his quest by St. Louis attorney Bob Herman, a specialist in first amendment cases.

BOB HERMAN, Hale’s Lawyer: This case is a test of our commitment to constitutional freedoms. Mr. Hale has beliefs that offend the majority of people and yet he should be granted the same freedoms and privileges that all the rest of us have in society.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Herman calls Hale’s case the most significant bar admission case of the last 30 years and will take an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court and very likely to the U.S. Supreme Court. But Loeb says Benjamin Smith’s killing spree means Hale should never be allowed to practice law.

HARLAN LOEB: He has forfeited his right to practice law because he is the leader of a church in which a prominent member engaged in virulent and very, very damaging criminal conduct. He did not denounce that. He made no statement repudiating the violence of a church member.

BOB HERMAN: The notion that someone can be liable for a criminal act with the proximate link being a shared philosophy or advocacy is a very tenuous one in my opinion.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Despite the attack on his son, Dr. Wolfe still believes it is important to protect free speech. But he says there are ways to combat the messages of hate.

DR. ROBERT WOLFE: You have to deal with it like drug abuse. You have to think of it s a temptation that some people are susceptible to.

DEVIN BURGHART, New World Community: Folks believe that this sort of activity occurs either in the deep South or out in the Pacific Northwest. Our research, unfortunately, tells us that hate is alive here and well right in the heartland.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Educating people out the significant rise in hate groups in the Midwest and across the country is one of the first steps in combating them, says Devin Burghart. Burghart spoke to this workshop on the community response to hate groups after Smith’s murderous weekend. Given the free speech protections for hate groups, Burghart says the way for those who are opposed to such groups to respond is to strongly exercise their own free speech rights.

DEVIN BURGHART: The first and foremost thing is that communities need to speak out early when hate groups come to town and speak out often, and when they speak out, speak in many different voices.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Since the Internet has become an integral part of spreading the message of hate groups, the Anti-Defamation League has come up with a way to protect children from that message.

HARLAN LOEB: ADL has developed a product that parents can use voluntarily which we call Hate Filter, appropriately enough, which is very inexpensive which parents can use voluntarily to screen out hate sites.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Hale says the growth of his church will be undeterred by either community pressure or hate fillers. The publicity surrounding Smith’s murders has only increased his membership, says Hale, and he expects that membership to continue to build.