February 6, 2009

FCC to Investigate Link Between Hate Speech and Hate Crimes

By Joe Torres

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Growing up, how often did your parents tell you this in their effort to protect you from school-yard bullies?

Despite their best intentions, you knew better. You learned that words can hurt. Now as an adult, you know that words have the power to inspire, as well as the power to tear people apart.

Many in the Latino community understand firsthand the power of words to bring out the worst in people. In recent years, hate crimes against Latinos have spiked by 40 percent sparked, in large part, by the hostile public debate over immigration. And many Latino leaders believe that right-wing talk shows have played a primary role in igniting the growing violence against their community.

This week, the National Hispanic Media Coalition (NHMC), working with the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center, filed a petition for inquiry that called on the FCC to investigate the pervasiveness of hate speech on the public airwaves and its impact on the Latino community. The groups also called on the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to update its 1993 Hate Speech report. At the time, the NTIA expressed concern that “the media may be creating an “atmosphere that encourages and legitimizes violence against minority groups.” But the report stopped short, stating “the available data linking the problem of hate crimes to telecommunications remains scattered and largely anecdotal.”

But the media landscape has been transformed since 1993. The NHMC’s petition provides several examples of the kinds of hate speech that are polluting the airwaves and creating a toxic environment that motivates violence.

Talk-show host Michael Savage ranted last year that undocumented immigrants have “raped” the Statue of Liberty and that the United States is being “overrun” by an “invading horde from another nation that wants to sweep you off the map.” Montana radio host John Stokes called for cutting off the limbs of anyone who cannot not speak English: “Romans 15:19 says that if they break into your country, chop off their leg. We have to forcibly get rid of them.”

It is this kind of rhetoric that the NHMC believes has fueled a recent string of hate crimes that ended in horrific murders.

Last year, 31-year-old Jose Sucuzhanay, a legal resident and a father of two, was beaten to death in Queens, New York by four men who hit him in the head with a bottle because of his ethnicity and because they believed he was gay. In Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, teenagers yelled racial epithets at 25-year-old Luis Eduardo Ramirez Zavala, saying, “Go Back to Mexico,” while beating him to death. In Patchogue, New York, several teenagers killed 37-year-old Marcelo Lucero after they spent a day targeting Hispanics, including firing a BB gun at a Hispanic man in a car and beating up another Hispanic man who was fortunate to escape.

NHMC is optimistic that with Obama’s election, the FCC will examine the issue of hate speech on the public airwaves. Last September, Obama told the Congressional Hispanic Caucus during a campaign appearance:

“This election is about the 12 million people living in the shadows, the communities taking immigration enforcement into their own hands ... they’re counting on us to stop the hateful rhetoric filling our airwaves, rise above the fear and demagoguery, and finally enact comprehensive immigration reform.”

Obama should understand as well as anyone how words can stoke hatred and threats of violence. Newsweek reported that in the lead-up to the presidential election, death threats against Obama spiked. It was during this time that conservative TV and radio talk-show hosts pounded away daily at Obama, claiming he wasn’t coming clean about his relationship with William Ayers, a terrorist from the 1960s and 1970s. Alaska Governor Sarah Palin even accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists.”

The rise in hate speech also coincides with an increase in the number of hate groups in the country. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) found that close to 900 hate groups now exist and that 250 nativist groups have been founded in recent years. In addition, the Anti-Defamation League found that nativist groups have increasingly appeared on news programs as legitimate opponents of immigration.

The NHMC petition is not asking for the FCC to pass new rules that regulate speech or to bring back the Fairness Doctrine. Rather, the group is seeking to shed light on the connection between hate speech and hate crimes.

One area that needs to be examined is the impact of media consolidation on the increase in hate speech. The 1996 Telecommunications Act led to massive consolidation in the radio industry, lifting the cap on the number of stations a company can own. Consequently, the consolidation reduced the diversity of voices on the air and made it easier for a syndicated talk program to be carried on more stations.

For example, a study conducted by the Center for American Progress and Free Press in 2007 found that 91 percent of the talk programming that airs on the top five commercial radio station owners - CBS, Clear Channel, Citadel, Cumulus and Salem - is conservative.

The FCC should not delay in investigating the link between hate speech and hate crimes. As it turns out, sticks and stones may break my bones, but name calling may also kill me.

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