Q&A with Jeaninne Bell: Legal Scholar, Hate Crime Expert

Jeaninne Bell, professor at the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University and a nationally recognized scholar, focuses her academic research on policing and hate crime. Her first book, Policing Hatred: Law Enforcement, Civil Rights, and Hate Crime, is an ethnography of a police hate crime unit. Among other work and appointments, Bell serves as a member of President Obama’s American Political Association’s Presidential Taskforce on Political Violence and Terrorism. Currently, her research focuses on the impact of hate crime on housing segregation. Trigger Warning: This article includes original language used in hate speech.

Rosemary Boeglin, News Editor

What is your experience with legal cases specifically related to hate speech?

Well, I’m an academic, so I’ve written about hate speech. Everything from cross burning to … noose hanging to interactions between hate speech and how it affects the individuals. I have a book on crime, which is different from hate speech. I have a couple books on hate crime.

What particular things constitute hate speech? Defining the term, what things specifically imply hate speech?

Hate speech can be defined legally, but it is unconstitutional for the government to regulate hate speech. So that’s something that’s important. A case, RNC vs. St. Paul, was a Minnesota case that went up to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that it was not constitutional for the government to criminalize, for instance, hate speech, even if it was hateful.

What types of offenses are prosecutable?

If it is a hate crime it can be prosecuted, so that was actually an excellent question. Things that look just like hate speech can be prosecuted if they fall into the realm of hate crime. A legal definition for a hate crime is an action that was motivated by bias on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation. It just depends on what category the statute selects. For instance, if you defaced a gravestone with an ethnic or racial slur, then it’s possible, if there is a jurisdiction [which] does have a hate crime statute, that you could be prosecuted for that.

Bringing it back to the Oberlin case, the thing that the suspected individuals are believed to be responsible for is the defacement of posters with racial slurs and racial symbols in a number of different public spaces. Maybe you would need more information, but if you do, do you have any idea if that would be prosecutable?

The jurisdiction, meaning the state of Ohio, might have some sort of hate crime statute. I don’t know whether [or not they do]. … The trouble with incidents like scrawling in particular public spaces, it’s hard to [determine] who it’s attempting to harass. That is the problem, you should have some sort of identified target for it [to be considered a hate crime] … but that’s the reason those sorts of incidents are frequently not prosecuted as hate crimes. Now, there are other statutes you can use. You can use vandalism statutes; it’s very clearly vandalism. It is not typical for the police to enforce vandalism as a particular type of crime; it’s a low-level crime. This may be a circumstance in which it might be useful to bring vandalism charges. Because it’s a violation of the criminal law, we know that violations of the criminal law, even if they’re not serious, affect individuals’ life choices.

What types of things would be considered as targeted harassment? For instance, if there were racial slurs on posters in Afrikan Heritage House, the Multicultural Resource Center or other safe spaces, does that become harassment?

No, it’s not as good a case in a situation like that. Prosecutors would like it much better if it were on someone’s door.

By targeted, you mean it needs to be very personalized?

Right, targeted at a particular individual.

Not just a group, or an identity?

Yeah, not just a group … Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. It’s not that when you write “nigger” on Black History Month materials, I don’t know who it’s aimed at. It’s quite clear to me. I’m just trying to give you the perspective that a prosecutor might have. And prosecutors are very cautious.

There are questions floating around about the motivation of the people who wrote the hate speech, that it’s possibly “trolling” or an attempted commentary on free speech. In your experience of studying hate speech cases, do you generally find that the motivation comes from genuine sentiment or is it common for it to be something else? Does the motivation even matter?

I actually don’t think it does because I think what matters is the impact it has on the individuals who encounter it [and] the people who are targeted by it. I’m African-American, if you call me a nigger, and it’s just part of … you’re making a point about whatever, then it’s going to be hard, if not impossible, for me to disassociate the word from the context of that speech and just take it as part of the argument you’re making. And this is even more true in a discussion that’s not face-to-face. If this is an attempt to provoke a discussion, it’s a poor attempt to provoke a discussion. And it’s an attempt to promote a discussion that victimizes. It falls differently, I think, on progressives who are of color and progressives who are white.

Could you elaborate on that?

For instance, there are many progressives who are the allies of people of color. They are not affected by hate speech in the same way. The hate speech is not directed at them. If you write “nigger” on Black History Month materials, then you’re talking to some people and not others. There are people that are offended and disgusted by it and angry, but you didn’t just call them a name.

There’s been a lot of conversation about allyship and communities coming together in attempting to understand their privilege when responding and understanding their own emotional or intellectual response to all of this.

That’s good; soak it all up while you’re at Oberlin. The real world is not like that.