By Miriam Raftery
May 14, 2009 (La Mesa)—La Mesa’s City Council voted unanimously to table a “Hate Free” resolution proposed by a coalition of 52 community groups countywide at a meeting Tuesday following heated and divisive public testimony. (For text of the resolution and details, see our previous article at http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/?q=node/1105.)Supporters said the measure was needed to reduce hate crimes by addressing “hate-motivated behavior” and promoting tolerance in the community. Opponents argued that it could restrict free speech and religious expression.
Supporters of the measure cited Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) data indicating a 50% rise in hate crimes nationally over the past eight years and a growing number of hate groups in San Diego County, including East County.
Eddie Meyer, field representative for Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, told Council members that the Hate Free San Diego coalition formed in part because of discrimination and hate faced by refugees at Qualcomm Stadium after the 2007 fires, when some people were denied emergency aid solely because of racial prejudice. “Currently in San Diego, we have a hate crime once in every three days,” he added. “Hate groups are moving to San Diego,” he added, noting that California already leads the nation in the number of hate groups. He called San Diego County a “hotbed” of hate-based activity and observed a need to “counter hate messages with a positive message.”
“We see a need to stand up for liberty and justice for all,” said David Meyer from the Church of Scientology, who formally asked the La Mesa Council to adopt the resolution. Countering critics who believe the measure targets free speech, he added, “Our mission is to elevate and encourage free speech, not suppress it.” He urged Council to adopt the measure to encourage people to speak out against bigotry, hate and hate-related violence. “If we remain silent, the perpetrator may think we believe it’s okay,” he added. “With our freedoms comes responsibility for our neighbors.”
La Mesa resident Nancy Goettler also spoke in favor. “Hate can be taught by actions and by inaction,” she said, then asked La Msea to “serve as an example for our children.”
Another speaker, a disabled veteran, said she had to pull her gay son out of school for half a year because “he encountered hate.”
Carroll Boone, a member of La Mesa United Methodist Church’s peace and justice committee, said she’s concerned that “difficult economic times have given rise to an increase in shaming, naming and hate speech in La Mesa and beyond.”
Rev. Mary Sue Brookshine also spoke in favor. “As a Christian minister, I am committee to honoring Christ’s greatest commandment—to love one another and encourage other Christians to do the same,” she said, pointedly adding that the resolution would not prevent her from speaking out from the pulpit on any issue as long as it is not endorsing a political candidate.
Other speakers lined up against the proposal, several citing verbal attacks and publication of semi-nude photos of Miss California USA, Carrie Prejean. Mary Hills called the actions retaliation against Prejean for “speaking her heart” in revealing that she opposes gay marriage. “Truth is being labeled as hate,” she said.
Pastor Jim Garlow (photo) of Skyline Church said he is against hate, but “freedoms are being lost.” He noted that opponents of Proposition 8, the gay marriage ballot initiative, had their personal addresses and maps showing location of their homes posted on the Internet. He observed that people who oppose gay marriage because of religious beliefs are “automatically called bigots, hatemongers.”
Sylvia Sullivan, a La Mesa resident who described herself as a “peaceful, pro-life demonstrator, asked “Are we not supposed to hate sometimes?” She stated that she has had things thrown at her while protesting against abortion.
Chris Thomas of La Mesa posed perhaps the most troubling question: “Who will decide what is hateful speech and what isn’t?”
Craig Maxwell, a former Mayoral candidate, testified that “hate crimes is a redundant category” and argued that the resolution could lead to “criminalization of thought itself.” He urged Council to adhere to the children’s phrase that “sticks and stones will break our bones, but names can never hurt us.”
La Mesa’s Police Chief testified that hate crimes have declined locally from 2008 to 2007 and that existing measures are effective.
Each Councilmember spoke out, and while all denounced hate crimes, Councilmembers unanimously expressed the view that the measure was not needed. Councilman Ernest Ewin said the issues raised by the resolution are “already covered by existing laws.” Councilwoman Ruth Sterling also expressed concern over Constitutional issues. “The Supreme Court has ruled that symbolic expression, whether swastikas, burning crosses or peace symbols, are protected speech,” she said. Councilman Mark Arapostathos, a teacher, said schools already promote acceptance, not hate.
Mayor Art Madrid said La Mesa has been a leader in battling hate, noting that the city introduced a human relations advisory committee many years ago and is committed to protecting the rights of all. He added that all members of the Council have received comments from people on both sides of the hate-free resolution who have taken a threatening tone with elected rerpesesnteds. “All of us got e-mails that said, `Support me or else.’”
Mayor Madrid concluded, “If there is one thing I’ve learned through the years, it’s that you cannot legislate common sense or morality.”