LANSING, MI – Lawmakers in Michigan are attempting to pass a new bill that would make it a hate crime to cause someone to “feel terrorized, frightened, or threatened,” with violators being charged with a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $10,000, leading some to question the legislation’s possible encroachment on the right to free speech.
The bill, HB 4474, would replace the Michigan’s current Ethnic Intimidation Act, and “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression” have been added as protected classes against threatening or frightening speech. The bill has already passed in the Michigan House of Representatives and is now going through the state Senate.
Some legal experts are already alarmed at the implications of HB 4474 when it comes to free speech. For example, most current version of the bill refers to the phrase “harassment” without offering any definition as to what that would entail, which could potentially result in a very loose interpretation that could greatly infringe upon freedom of expression in some instances.
“’Intimidate’ means a willful course of conduct involving repeated or continuing harassment of another individual that would cause a reasonable individual to feel terrorized, frightened, or threatened, and that actually causes the victim to feel terrorized, frightened, or threatened,” the bill’s text states.
Professor Emeritus William Wagner, a former federal judge and legal counsel in the U.S. Senate, was highly critical of the bill, claiming that it would unfairly target those with conservative or religious points of view.
“Make no mistake about it. Those advocating for this legislation will wield these policies as a weapon capable of destroying conservative expression or viewpoints grounded in the sacred,” he said. “One merely needs to look at the scores of cases brought against schools, churches, businesses, and individuals around our country. Proponents use these laws to silence and financially cripple those who dare to adhere to a different viewpoint and oppose their agenda.”
Wagner noted that due to the loosely-worded nature of HB 4474, the idea of what constitutes intimidation or harassment could be left entirely to the interpretation of the one hearing it, as well as any prosecutor handling a potential case.
However, HB 4474 does include some text regarding the freedom to engage in constitutionally protected speech, but the bill still leaves a degree of gray area that has legal experts concerned.
“Intimidate does not include constitutionally protected activity or conduct that serves a legitimate purpose,” the bill says.
HB 4474 passed by a vote of 59-50 in Michigan’s Democrat-controlled House; it is now in the Senate, which also has a Democratic majority. If passed, the bill is very likely to be signed into law by the state’s Govenor Gretchen Whitmer, also a Democrat.