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Nevada bill targets ‘hate symbols’; some raise free speech concerns

State legislators weighed in during a Tuesday hearing on a proposed bill to make it a crime to draw, paint, etch or display a “hate symbol” in a public place.

Senate Bill 227 would make a person guilty of the crime of “intimidation” if that person created a symbol of hate on public property or in plain view of the public “with the intent to cause a person to feel threatened or intimidated.” The bill lists a hangman’s noose and the Nazi swastika as examples of hate symbols.

“What this bill is intended to do is to discourage people from intimidation by these symbols of hate,” said Sen. Pat Spearman, D-North Las Vegas, said during the hearing before the Senate Committee on Judiciary.

“One of the things we discussed was making sure those who perpetrated this type of hate crime got the message that in Nevada, we don’t want that and we won’t tolerate that,” Spearman, a primary sponsor of the bill, added.

While the language in the bill states it shouldn’t be construed to prohibit any form of constitutionally protected free speech, some members of the committee expressed concern the legislation would do so.

Republican Sen. Jeff Stone, who mentioned he had family members killed in the Holocaust, took issue with the bill.

“Do I hate what the swastika represents today? 100 percent, yes,” he said. “(But) free speech must be protected, even if we don’t like the message. Where hate speech is coupled with violence, that is the exception. Throw the books at the perpetrators, put them in jail for as long as you possibly can. My concern in this bill is the definition of the symbol of hate. I think it’s too subjective, I think it’s too broad.”

Fellow Republican Sen. Ira Hansen seemed to agree with Stone, quoting scholar Noam Chomsky, saying, “If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like.”

Elliott Malin of the Anti-Defamation League, who is partnering with Spearman on the legislation, responded to the criticisms by saying, “We’re working on tightening up this language … to make sure we protect First Amendment liberties for everybody.”

If the bill becomes law, the first offense would be a misdemeanor, while any subsequent offense would be a felony.

Contact Justin Razavi at jrazavi@reviewjournal.com. Follow @justin_razavi on Twitter.

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