Post's Knight distorted arrest of anti-gay protesters in arguing against hate-crime bill

››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

In arguing that proposed federal hate-crimes legislation "is red meat for key elements of the Democratic Party," Denver Post columnist Al Knight uncritically repeated a misleading claim from Republican U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt (MO). He wrote that Blunt "recalled" that "11 people were arrested in Philadelphia 'simply for holding signs and reading passages out of the Bible during a gay pride festival' "; in fact, they had disobeyed police orders to move.

To support his position that a federal hate-crimes bill "is red meat for key elements of the Democratic Party," Denver Post columnist Al Knight on May 9 repeated the misleading claim from Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO) that "11 people were arrested" in 2004 " 'simply for holding signs and reading passages out of the Bible during a gay pride festival' " in Philadelphia. Knight wrote, "The men and women were ultimately each charged with three felonies and five misdemeanors. Among the charges were ethnic intimidation (a hate crime) and 'inciting a riot.' "

In fact, as The Philadelphia Inquirer reported (accessed through the Nexis database) on January 23, 2007, those arrested had failed to apply "for a permit to hold a counterprotest," used bullhorns "to drown out the speech" at the event, and "disobeyed orders to move" when police "said the crowd was threatening to get violent." Knight also omitted the fact that the charges were dropped, and did not mention that a federal judge dismissed the group's lawsuit claiming officials "infringed on their freedom of speech," as the Inquirer reported.

In his column, Knight stated, "Clearly, there are times when major news organizations wish to alarm the public and times when they decidedly do not. Take the issue of whether the nation needs a new federal hate-crimes statute. The House recently passed such a bill and sent it to the Senate. President Bush has promised to veto it. That means the public is in for a classic tussle over cultural and free speech issues." He later wrote:

So why has this issue reached the top of the legislative agenda in Congress now that the Democrats are in control? Perhaps the bill is red meat for key elements of the Democratic Party, including feminists, racial and ethnic minorities and, of course, gays and lesbians.

[...]

Some critics of the legislation refer to it as the "thought crimes" bill -- and for good reason. One of those is Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. Blunt recalled that in 2004, 11 people were arrested in Philadelphia "simply for holding signs and reading passages out of the Bible during a gay pride festival." The men and women were ultimately each charged with three felonies and five misdemeanors. Among the charges were ethnic intimidation (a hate crime) and "inciting a riot."

The "11 people" Blunt "recalled" belong to an organization called Repent America, which states on its website that it is "an evangelistic organization" that "desires to be in the full Will of God and to adhere entirely to the teachings of the Bible." According to a Human Rights Campaign account of the incident, the 11 members were arrested "at the October 2004 Philadelphia Outfest, a large annual gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender block party." Contradicting Blunt's claim that they were arrested "simply for holding signs and reading passages out of the Bible," the Inquirer reported the Repent America protesters were arrested "after they disobeyed [police] orders to move":

Organizers of the gay-pride event initially tried to block the [Repent America] protesters from entering, but police escorted the activists in while attempting to confine them to the fringes [of the event area]. The protesters, using bullhorns and signs, were arrested after they disobeyed orders to move. Police said the crowd was threatening to get violent.

[U.S. District Judge Lawrence F.] Stengel said the gay-pride event had received proper city permits, and the evangelists had neglected to take alternative means to communicate their message, including applying for a permit to hold a counterprotest.

Knight further omitted that the charges against the Repent America protesters were dropped and that they in turn filed a "federal court claim that Philadelphia officials infringed on their freedom of speech," which Stengel dismissed. According to the Inquirer:

The activists, whose case received extensive coverage in the Christian media, argued that the city had violated their First Amendment rights by arresting them at an event on a public street. They claimed police silenced them because of the content of their message. A city judge later dismissed the criminal charges against the 11 defendants.

From Al Knight's column "Congress overdoes it on hate crimes" in the May 9 edition of The Denver Post:

The other night, "CBS News" reported that more than four years into the Iraq war, violence was continuing "with no end in sight."

This is an interesting choice of words. One cannot imagine, for example, the same news organization reporting that Social Security costs are going up "with no end in sight." Nor are we likely to hear that environmental regulations are multiplying "with no end in sight."

Clearly, there are times when major news organizations wish to alarm the public and times when they decidedly do not.

Take the issue of whether the nation needs a new federal hate-crimes statute. The House recently passed such a bill and sent it to the Senate. President Bush has promised to veto it. That means the public is in for a classic tussle over cultural and free speech issues.

[...]

Interestingly, there has been no credible showing that the many states that have such laws are refusing to enforce them. Certainly there has been no national scandal involving such a failure. So why has this issue reached the top of the legislative agenda in Congress now that the Democrats are in control? Perhaps the bill is red meat for key elements of the Democratic Party, including feminists, racial and ethnic minorities and, of course, gays and lesbians.

The bill in one sense is more symbol than substance. It sets up a grant program so that a state that already has a hate-crime statute can ask for federal help in prosecuting certain cases. It can also ask for grants to train local law-enforcement officers in how to "prevent hate crimes" or "combat hate crimes committed by juveniles."

It should be emphasized that there has been no evidence that such programs are needed in specific states or that the states themselves are unable to fund such efforts.

[...]

Some critics of the legislation refer to it as the "thought crimes" bill - and for good reason. One of those is Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. Blunt recalled that in 2004, 11 people were arrested in Philadelphia "simply for holding signs and reading passages out of the Bible during a gay pride festival." The men and women were ultimately each charged with three felonies and five misdemeanors. Among the charges were ethnic intimidation (a hate crime) and "inciting a riot."

It cannot be proven that federal legislation in this area would produce more such incidents, but neither can it be proven that it would not.

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