Finley: AG Nessel puts civil liberties at risk

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
Attorney General Dana Nessel answers questions from reporters during a press conference Thursday morning in Lansing.

Combating hate crimes is a worthy endeavor. But the new campaign announced by Attorney General Dana Nessel has the real potential to morph into thought policing.

Nessel, in partnership with Agustin Arbulu, director of the Michigan Department of Civil rights, say they will create a process to document incidents of hate and bias that don't rise to the level of criminal or civil infractions. 

That could translate to speech or expressions of opinion that some may find offensive, but are protected by the First Amendment. Bias is protected by the Constitution until it infringes on the rights and freedoms of others, and hate is often in the eye of the beholder. 

If what Nessel and Arbulu are targeting are words, thoughts and opinions, this could easily become a weapon to shut down groups they find abhorrent, but are operating within the law.

That's not the charge of their offices.

There's reason to worry that's the direction this will take.

Nessel says she'll start her surveillance with the 31 Michigan organizations that appear on the Southern Poverty Legal Center's list of hate groups.  

But the SPLC list is widely discredited as a political tool used to harass and discredit conservative groups. 

Spots on the list are earned not necessarily through hateful actions, but for expression of opinions on social issues that don't adhere to left-wing ideology.

Groups have been singled out as hateful by the SPLC for opposing gay marriage, abortion and immigration.

The SPLC is extremely reckless in its selection of groups to include on the hit list. 

Last summer it had to pay out more than $3 million to settle a suit filed by a former radical Islamist who was listed as "anti-Muslim" for speaking out against extremism. 

One of the Michigan organizations on the SPLC list, Church Militant/St. Michael’s Media in Ferndale, is there because it advocates strict Catholic teachings on marriage and is outspoken in its opposition to abortion.

Nessel and Arbulu may not agree, and may find those positions personally repugnant, but the First Amendment guarantees Church Militant the right to express itself on gay marriage and other social issues, and to do so vigorously.

There's no accusation that the Catholic group has ever broken the law, or committed an act of violence against those whose lifestyles it rejects. Subjecting it to a state interrogation would amount to harassing its members for their religious beliefs. 

Nessel and Arbulu say they intend to compile and maintain a data base on the groups it identifies as being hate-motivated. Presumably, that means documenting their activities and membership.

Again, that's troublesome in its potential to violate the right to free association, as well as to speech and religion. It could easily become an enemies list to punish political opposition and dissent.

The attorney general should absolutely go after those who violate the state's hate crime laws, and protect the victims of hate.

But the effort she has outlined is risky. Holding opinions that are unpopular, and even widely offensive, does not meet the definition of a hate crime. 

Nessel and Arbulu should stand down. In their zeal to rid Michigan of hate, the risk is too great that they will end up trampling the Constitution.

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