Hate Crimes and Social Media

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hanging effigies can be a hate crime

Hanging effigies photo by Keith Tyler

Earlier this month, eight wrestlers from Phillipsburg High School in New Jersey posted a picture that borders the line between schoolboy prank and hate crime. The issue is not that the teammates were merely displaying poor sportsmanship, but that the image they conjured very closely resembles images of lynching and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The decision to post the picture on Twitter – where the image could be publicly viewed and create nationwide contention- is what made a potentially private issue a public one.

The Controversial Photo

The picture is of seven of the eight boys- the eighth is taking the picture – wearing their team attire surrounding a hanging mannequin that is wearing a shirt from the opposing team. While rivalries run deep in most schools, lynching a member of the rival team – even figuratively – is hostile and threatening, rather than merely provocative. To make matters worse, two of the Philipsburg boys were wearing pointed hoodies, and the hanging mannequin was black. While the intention may not have been to promote racist sentiments, the message could certainly be perceived as such.

Definition of a Hate Crime

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) a hate crime is “an element of bias to traditional crimes” adding, “the mixture is toxic to our community.” According to the FBI website, a hate crime is the number one priority of their Civil Rights Program because “hate crime has a devastating impact on families and communities” because “groups that preach hatred and intolerance plant the seeds of terrorism here in our county.”

The FBI define a hate crime as the following:

“A hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias. For the purpose of collecting statistics, Congress has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.” Hate itself is not a crime – and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.”[1]

The picture that the boys took could easily been seen to plant seeds of hatred, not only among their fellow classmates towards their rival team, but also of racism. Regardless of the intention of the photo, the message can clearly be interpreted as racist. Once an image – be it text or photo – is released into public domain, the image becomes subjective and can be misinterpreted. Fortunately for the ill-advised teens, their actions did not spark a wave of crime such as arson or vandalism, which would have constituted their actions as a hate crime.

The Punishment of the Participants of the Picture

Even if the picture resulted in a hate crime, the offense would not have been a Federal one. As it stands, the wrestlers were banned from their upcoming tournament, received a three-day suspension, and publicly apologized during a press conference. The young men are also facing official charges and have been instructed by their attorney to keep silent on the matter. The attorney assured the press that the picture was not intended to spur racist angst, arguing that the pointed hoodies and black mannequin were shear coincidence.

While official charges have yet to be made, one thing is certain – intention may not matter. The issue with posting images to social media, or the internet in general, is that private property – (the picture) – goes public becoming subject to public scrutiny and subject to subsequent consequences.

Clearing a Hate Crime Offense from Your Criminal Record

If the Philipsburg High wrestlers end up subject to a police investigation, they could face charges of hate crimes. A hate crime or bias crime, as previously mentioned, is not a federal crime and therefore falls to the state for judgment. New Jersey, like nearly every state, has laws prohibiting hate crimes.

Though the penalties for bias or hate crimes are not specifically articulated, there are “penalty enhancements statutes” in place that “increase the penalty for existing criminal offenses when a victim is targeted, based in whole or in part on the perception or beliefs of the actor, because of race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin or ethnicity of that person, owner or occupant of that property, regardless of whether or not the perpetrator’s belief was correct.”

If the group of wrestlers face charges, they will have a criminal record that will follow them around until they are able to have the offense expunged from their records. Unfortunately for these young men, by posting the tasteless picture online, they have cemented the thoughtless action into their history- what gets posted online, stays online. Overtime, their picture may get pushed back into the search engine boonies, but until then, the only way to remove the offense background checks for universities, employment, and housing is expungement.