The recent troubling controversies in Jena, La., at Columbia University, and at the University of Maryland highlight the disturbing increase in the number of violent attacks and hate-motivated incidents in schools throughout the country. The nation's schools and universities have often been battlegrounds on civil rights. After all, they lay the foundation for a civil society.
If we silence the history of intolerance in the classroom; if we fail to discuss the brutal and peculiar institution of slavery, the lawlessness and lynching of the Jim Crow era, the horrors of the Third Reich, then our children will not truly comprehend the significance of contemporary acts of genocide, such as the atrocities in Rwanda or Darfur.
Unfortunately, there are some who wish to undo the worthwhile progress made in recent decades to guarantee equal rights and equal protection for all – regardless of race, religion, ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity. There has been a sharp increase in the number of nooses sighted across the country since September. The Southern Poverty Law Center also reports a recent rise in the number of hate groups. Just last week, the FBI reported that nearly 10,000 Americans were victims of hate crimes last year, an 8 percent increase from 2005. This upward trend in the number of hate crimes may be the tip of the iceberg, since many state and local jurisdictions don't participate in the data collection. In light of these trends, it's essential to send a strong message that America will not tolerate crimes fueled by hate.
Education is an important part of prevention, but we also need strong federal legislation to punish those who engage in hate-motivated violence and to expand federal resources available to investigate, prosecute, and prevent these vicious crimes.
For this reason, we hope President Bush will support our efforts to enact the federal hate-crimes legislation now being considered in Congress.
The bill passed the House of Representatives in March, and it was also approved by the Senate as an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill in September. Both the House and Senate are expected to act upon the Defense Authorization bill before the end of the year. The next few weeks represent a historic opportunity to make this bill the law of the land.
The Matthew Shepard Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act makes clear that victims of hate crimes based on their gender, sexual orientation, disability, or gender identity should be protected under federal law.
The legislation also updates current law by removing the outdated requirement that a victim be engaging in one of a limited number of activities, such as traveling in interstate commerce, in order for the federal government to intervene. The legislation will also amend current law to cover crimes occurring in private residences, so that the federal government can investigate and prosecute hate crimes – regardless of where they occur.
The White House has threatened to veto this legislation, questioning Congress's constitutional authority to strengthen the federal hate crimes law. Prominent constitutional scholars disagree, because the pending legislation is clearly within the power that the Constitution grants to Congress and properly respects the principles of federalism. Claims that the bill will allow prosecutions of "hate speech" are also misleading. The act punishes violence that results in death or bodily injury, not speech. Nothing in the bill will trump any individual's right to free speech.
We urge the president to do the right thing and sign this measure into law. In doing so, he can send an important message that all victims of hate crimes should be protected, reinforcing our founding ideals of liberty and justice for all.
Democracy is not a plateau on which to rest. It is a series of continuous actions, and each citizen; each organization; each business; each local, state or federal government must do its part to confirm our commitment to build a truly inclusive nation. Failing to teach children the history of the struggle for civil rights is a mistake we cannot afford to make. We must also reinforce our educational efforts by enacting and enforcing tough laws against hate crimes to make clear that our country will not tolerate hate-motivated violence.
• Edward M. Kennedy is a Democratic senator from Massachusetts. John Lewis is a Democratic congressman from Georgia.