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Feb. 24, 2011 Volume 32, No. 21

Law professors discuss hate crime at campus forum


Suspect’s motivation central to charge

Benjamin Elliott, the University of Missouri student arrested for allegedly spray-painting a racial slur on a sculpture in front of Hatch Hall, has been charged with a hate crime. But such charges rest on whether the accused intended to cause harm, not just offense.

And that, according to four MU law professors, isn’t always easy to prove.

At a Feb. 17 panel discussion at the MU School of Law, Christina Wells, the Enoch H. Crowder Professor of Law, said that, because of protections offered by the First Amendment, there is no consensus on whether such acts of “speech” constitute a hate crime.

“In these cases, when you have something this horrific, the first instinct is to punish because it’s like a slap in the face,” she said. “But the question is whether that’s the best way to deal with this issue in society.

“I think that we aren’t going to get past this issue by just saying, ‘Let’s just punish him and be done with it,’ ” she continued.

Elliott was arrested Feb. 12 on suspicion of second-degree property damage, normally a misdemeanor. But the charge was raised to a Class D felony under Missouri law, which defines a hate crime as an offense “knowingly motivated because of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation or disability of the victim or victims.”

S. David Mitchell, who teaches courses in both civil and criminal law, said numerous parties were hurt by the act, including black students in Hatch Hall and on campus, their parents, other persons of color at the university, as well as the entire MU community.

Mitchell said that, as an African-American, he felt uneasy walking onto campus after the incident.

“Incidences such as these catapult a sense of non-belonging to the fore in the most visceral and overt way possible, with a slur that was created to dehumanize our entire race,” he said.

MU Chief Diversity Officer Roger Worthington, who helped organize the forum in the law school’s Moot Courtroom, said that a half a million college students are the target of bias-driven racial slurs and violence each year. A hate crime is committed on a college campus every day, he said, and every minute a student somewhere hears a racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise derogatory remark.

This is the second racially charged incident in two years at MU. Last February, two students scattered cotton balls around the parking lot of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center. The two men were originally arrested on suspicion of a hate crime, but were later charged with a misdemeanor for littering. They were sentenced to probation after they apologized.

Last week’s panel also featured Paul Litton, an associate professor, and Frank Bowman, the Floyd R. Gibson Missouri Endowed Professor of Law. Bowman started the discussion with a brief history of slavery in Boone County, noting that it still has an effect on racial relations in Columbia today. 

“Columbia remains a community with deep divisions among racial lines,” he said.

Wells and Mitchell brought up a proposed requirement that MU students take a “diversity-intensive” course as part of the general education curriculum. Wells said such a course could benefit students, but that it should be discussion-based rather than lecture-based. Students don’t want to be told what to believe, she said.

Mitchell echoed that sentiment, adding that a course can only do so much for a student socialized to have a racist disposition.

“There’s nothing wrong with a [diversity course] requirement,” Mitchell said. “But would a student take a class and then not do this? It seems to me that it would be like checking off a box. You don’t become sympathetic or diverse in a class through reading text.”

Elliott has been placed on “temporary suspension” from the university pending the outcome of a student conduct judicial process.

— Kelly Nelson