‘Hate Crime’ Hoaxes

May 2, 2013


A student at the University of Wyoming has received a misdemeanor citation for a Facebook post that "allegedly threatened" a female UW student, the amusingly named Laramie Boomerang reports. The target of the post was Meg Lanker-Simons. The student who is accused of sending it is Meg Lanker-Simons.

CampusReform.org has the full text of the post except for a partly redacted four-letter obscenity. As this is the website of a family newspaper, we’ll rely on the Boomerang’s sanitized description:

The post was made April 24 to the UW Crushes page on Facebook.

It described Lanker-Simons as "that chick that runs her liberal mouth all the time and doesn’t care who knows it."

The post also referenced a graphic, sexual act against the woman.

"One night with me and shes gonna be a good Republican (expletive)," the post read.

The message itself would appear to be protected by the First Amendment. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor explained in Virginia v. Black (2003, citations omitted):

The First Amendment permits a State to ban "true threats," which encompass those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals. The speaker need not actually intend to carry out the threat. Rather, a prohibition on true threats protects individuals from the fear of violence and the disruption that fear engenders, as well as from the possibility that the threatened violence will occur. Intimidation in the constitutionally proscribable sense of the word is a type of true threat, where a speaker directs a threat to a person or group of persons with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.

As David Hudson of the First Amendment Center (quoted at the link by Azhar Majeed of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) has noted, federal courts have differed in their interpretation of this standard:

Some courts have determined that in order for speech to constitute a true threat, the speaker must subjectively intend to threaten someone. This doesn’t mean that the speaker must actually intend to carry out the threat. It does mean, however, that the speaker must subjectively intend that his or her comments be interpreted as a true threat. . .  

However, other courts interpret Virginia v. Black as requiring only that the speaker knowingly intended to communicate to another person. These courts do not require that it be proven that the speaker subjectively intended to threaten someone. Rather, they focus on whether there was an intent to communicate and whether an objective or reasonable recipient would regard it as a serious expression of harm. 

If somebody else had written the post, then, whether it would be prosecutable would depend on which standard applies in the 10th U.S. Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Wyoming. Under the former, "subjective" standard, prosecutors would have to show that the author meant it as a threat (rather than as a joke or an idle fantasy, however tasteless). Under the latter, "objective" standard, they would have to show only that a reasonable person could take it seriously.

Why are phony "hate crimes" so common, especially on college campuses? We’d like to go through a few obvious answers, all of which have merit, and then delve a bit deeper into the psychology of such incidents.But since a true threat has to be directed at another person (or against a group of people), Lanker-Simons’s alleged "threat" against herself cannot be a true threat and thus qualifies as free speech. The citation against her is for "interference," or making false statements to the police. She’s not commenting, but her lawyer told the Boomerang she intends to plead not guilty.

One obvious answer is that people do this sort of thing to get attention. Multicultural identity politics, which is a dominant force on campus and a significant one off it, creates a perverse incentive structure by rewarding victims of purported hate and going easy on hoaxers. In March Michelle Malkin wrote of an incident in which her alma mater, Ohio’s Oberlin College, experienced a rash of racist graffiti.

The college president and three deans "ostentatiously published an ‘open letter’ announcing the administration’s decision to ‘suspend formal classes and non-essential activities.’ " The incident drew national media coverage–but the denouement didn’t: "After arresting two students involved in the spate of hate messages left around campus, police say ‘it is unclear if they were motivated by racial hatred or–as has been suggested–were attempting a commentary on free speech.’  

Lanker-Simons, unsurprisingly, turns out to be quite the left-wing activist herself. The Boomerang reports that in 2010 she successfully sued the university challenging its decision to bar domestic terrorist and presidential pal Bill Ayers from speaking on campus. But this time around, the university’s position vis-à-vis Lanker-Simons isn’t exactly an adversarial one:

UW released a statement Tuesday afternoon about the citation.

"This episode has sparked an important discussion reaffirming that the UW community has no tolerance for sexual violence or violence of any type," UW spokesman Chad Baldwin said. "The fact that the Facebook post apparently was a fabrication does not change the necessity for continued vigilance in reassuring that we have a campus where everyone feels safe.

"It’s important that this event does not undermine the progress that has been made in this area."

Some hate-crime hoaxers have motives that are more personal than political. The New York Times, reporting in 1988 on the grand-jury report in the Tawana Brawley hoax, noted that "evidence suggested that she may have feared the wrath of her mother’s boyfriend for her late nights out." In 1998 Associated Press reported that Cornelius Weaver, a black Louisiana man who claimed he had been dragged behind a car by three white men–similar to what actually happened to a black Texan named James Byrd–recanted and admitted he had invented the story to cover up a drug deal that went bad.

It seems to us, however, that there is in addition an important psychological component to the phenomenon of fake hate crimes. As we noted last month, the anthropologist Robert Ardrey posited a hierarchy of three basic psychological needs, of which the most important is identity, followed by stimulation and security.

A shared experience of being oppressed can be a powerful source of identity. That’s why in America groups like blacks, Jews and gays tend to identify more strongly with their groups than do their traditionally unoppressed counterparts, whites, Christians and heterosexuals. (In the case of the latter set, we are referring to the groups as a whole, not to ethnic, sectarian or sexual subsets of them.) To what extent women were oppressed by prefeminist sex roles is a complicated question, but one definition of a feminist is someone whose estimate is on the high side.

Oppression of minorities, and certainly of women, scarcely exists in America in the 21st century. Genuine hate crimes happen, but they are very rare. Few societies in history have offered more security to the previously downtrodden. But the presence of security only makes the need for identity and stimulation more pressing. Hate-crime hoaxes are an extreme way of meeting those needs.