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  December 4, 2000

Dialogue, Not Suppression, the Way to
Deal With Hateful Words, Says Speaker

Even though hateful speech hurts and may lead to violence, suppressing the hateful and derogatory things people say is not the answer, according to an activist who specializes in dealing with hate speech and hate crimes. Instead, it is better to engage in dialogue on the issues, says Steve Gavron, Coordinator of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Hate Crimes Project of the Connecticut Women's Education and Legal Fund.

He spoke with a group of students during a presentation and discussion on the topic, Is Hate Speech a Crime and Does it Lead to Violence? The event, held Wednesday in the Student Union, was sponsored by the Rainbow Center.

Under Connecticut law since 1990, said Gavron, "if you do any kind of crime against anybody or somebody's property with specific intent to harm that person because of their actual or perceived race, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity," that's a hate crime.

"A lot of people don't know what a hate crime is," he said. "If you've been a victim of a hate crime, you don't know it necessarily.

"If you merely call someone a name, that's not a hate crime. There's a First Amendment right to call people whatever you want," he added. "It's different as soon as you threaten or intimidate somebody."

He said touch also plays a role in the definition of hate crimes. Where touch is involved, he said, "there's an interesting line crossed on intimidation."

Gavron said it's important not to destroy evidence of a possible hate crime. He said he tells victims that despite the shame they may feel, they should keep everything they had when they were attacked. "I tell them, 'do you want to help get the bad guys?'"

Gavron, who is openly gay, said most of the perpetrators of hate crimes against gay people "are young straight males in groups of two or more — and usually white." People working in the hate crimes field are finding out, he said, that many of the perpetrators have some confusion over their own sexual identity. "They may be straight but they have some homosexual stuff going on," he said, " and they beat up another homosexual to prove they're not homosexual."

Dealing with the problem of hate crimes, he said, comes back to how society is going to deal with homophobia and sexism.

He said talking about the issues is a place to start. When people use derogatory words, he said, "I ask them, 'what do you mean?' It promotes dialogue."

Gavron said rules on hate speech are controversial and vary between public and private colleges, and from elementary schools to high schools to college.

"A high school can enforce a dress code, they can look in your locker and they can tell you you can't use nasty words," he said. "At an elementary school it's probably a good idea to ban the word 'nigger', the word 'spic'. But at college, I want to know who to watch out for.

"My opinion is that allowing people to speak out promotes dialogue, action, and reaction. You're better off."

Gavron drew a line between speaking out against hateful speech and censorship. Citing the example of a recent visit by rap artist Eminem to Hartford, Gavron said a protest in which he was involved at City Hall was not intended to stop the rapper from performing. "What we want to do is tell people what these songs are about, and that's hate," Gavron said. "His albums are incredibly misogynistic and homophobic."

But attempts to stop him performing would be "counter to minority groups' historic problem with First Amendment stuff - us being told what we can and cannot do, what we can and cannot say, where can and cannot go," he said. "It would be very hypocritical."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu