Internet postings with anti-Muslim hate messages may soon be subject to federal criminal laws, according to Bill Killian, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee.
On Tuesday, Killian and the FBI office in Knoxville, Tenn., and Bill Killian, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee, will be holding a meeting with Muslim leaders in the area.
Killian and Kenneth Moore, the FBI special agent from the Knoxville office, will be special speakers at a special meeting entitled “Public Disclosure in a Diverse Society.” They will be speaking with the Muslim community in Knoxville to inform them of their civil rights, as they pertain to hate speech and hate crimes.
Twitter feeds, however, have been rife with calls to action against the event.
The controversy is largely due to Killian’s statements regarding a recent Facebook posting by Coffee County Commissioner Barry West. In that posting, West pictured a man pointing a double-barreled shotgun at the camera, with the caption reading “How to Wink at a Muslim.”
Killian has stated that he plans to use federal civil rights laws to curb hate speech, if the speech is made incident to a hate crime. Now, many online pundits, including Pamela Geller, are accusing Killian and the Department of Justice of attempting to criminalize Islamophobic hate speech.
The real issue for many is that hate speech is generally protected under the First Amendment, unless the speech incites violence. Attempts to prosecute people for hateful speech on social media will almost certainly face backlash, as the First Amendment is one of the cornerstones of American law.
“The hate speech would have to pose a direct threat to an individual,” said Dr. Charles Haynes, of the First Amendment Center, when asked how Killian could prosecute for hateful statements made in social media.
“It’s a mystery to me,” Haynes replied, when asked which statute he thought Killian would use to prosecute hate speech.
But Killian claims that he isn’t seeking to stifle the First Amendment’s protections on free speech. Rather, he’s concerned with the impediment on the free practice of one’s religion — another key aspect of the First Amendment.
“People are free to hate, as long as they don’t act on it,” Killian said.
Killian wants to make one thing very clear: that he does not plan to prosecute anyone for posting hateful comments on social media. Rather, he intends to use hate speech as evidence in the prosecution of hate crimes.
“Hateful statements directed at another will be used as evidence in a hate crime,” he said.
Using a hypothetical example, Killian explained:
“Imagine if you and I were planning to vandalize a mosque and we conspired over Facebook. We set a time to meet at that mosque through Facebook chat. Those statements would be used as evidence in prosecuting a conspiracy to commit a hate crime. By no means are we prosecuting anyone in violation of the First Amendment.”
Despite this, many plan to protest, as Pamela Geller’s website Atlas Shrugs, is calling for a demonstration outside the Manchester-Coffee County Conference Center.
This isn’t fazing Killian, however.
“Our district has a 96 percent conviction rate,” Killian says, “and we’ve never had a conviction overturned for violation of First Amendment.”