Sat, Jul 13, 2024

Councilmember Terrance Freeman is concerned increasing hate crime penalties could lead to legal blowback on the city.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Plans to address an uptick in hate crimes in Jacksonville are stirring controversy.

Jacksonville City Councilman Terrence Freeman is speaking out against a proposal to increase hate crime penalties with concerns it could lead to legal backfire on the city.

The proposal addresses crimes that promote animosity against race, religion or sexual orientation – issues Jacksonville has seen an uptick in, according to the councilmembers who proposed the idea.

The bill mentions the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office reported 24 hate crimes to the FBI between 2020 and 2022.

“We can’t legislate our way out of hate. It’s always going to exist and be with us,” said Freeman.

Freeman vividly remembers shedding tears with state and local officials after the racially motivated Dollar General shooting claimed the lives of three people.

“We came together as a city during that time,” said Freeman. “If you ask me, ‘Do I think, as a city, we’re doing what it takes to show love and move our city forward, yes.’ But, ‘Does this bill play a role in that?’ No, that’s because it already exists.”

Councilman Jimmy Peluso was joined by several other city councilmembers last month to propose an idea to triple the fines and jail time for hate crimes in Jacksonville.

Freeman is worried about what the proposal will mean for policing and legal blowback on the city – so he’s hoping it dies before it goes any further.

“We’re looking at having our members of JSO, when they’re out fighting these bad actors and stopping them from doing something, having to spend time figuring out and deciphering, ‘Is this hate speech or not?’ You look at the challenges to First Amendment rights, the potential litigation,” said Freeman.

A JSO spokesperson said the agency can’t comment on the impact the harsher penalties will have on policing since it’s still just a bill.

Peluso says his bill shouldn’t impact the police, but will give prosecutors harsher penalties to pursue.

“All the things are already illegal,” said Peluso. “Things JSO can take action on. It would be after the fact where it would be determined if there was hate in nature.”

Peluso says he’s hoping the council and community will give feedback over the next few weeks and make tweaks if necessary, but he has no plans to pull the bill.

“We need to make sure in this community and this city, we say, ‘No, where hate is being used to motivate people to cause violence, that needs to stop, and we need to do everything in our power to do so,'” said Peluso. “That’s what this bill does.”

Peluso says the bill will have a public hearing at city council sometime in the next few months.

He says it’ll probably be late June or early July before it goes for a final vote.

Freeman issued the following statement about the bill:

“Today [Monday], I will voice my opposition to 2024‐0334. While we all agree that we should oppose “hate,” this legislation disingenuously seeks to leverage our emotions for political purposes and does nothing to address the issues that face our city.   As Council President, I led the charge on legislation that stopped bad actors from using private property to display hateful and antisemitic messages. Our work in Jacksonville resulted in the Florida Legislature passing a similar bill.  However, this new legislation proposed by Councilman Peluso is government overreach that would create unintended consequences.   Instead of keeping our community safe and doing police work, our officers would spend valuable time deciding which speech is or is not “hate speech.” There are also unknown repercussions to the First Amendment ‐ in which the city will likely face litigation, diverting taxpayer dollars from other pressing needs.   Current state law already punishes those who commit crimes motivated by hate and prejudice. Jacksonville does not need an unnecessary law to tell us about the dehumanizing nature of hate speech and its corrosive effects. Our history shows the progress we’ve made as a city. Jacksonville has elected African Americans to various citywide political offices that would have been impossible to imagine only fifty years ago.   As a City Councilman, I’ve traveled to all parts of Jacksonville and met citizens across all walks of life. The people of this city are good and decent people trying to build a better life for themselves and their families. They do not need their elected officials to virtue‐signal so those politicians can get a good headline.   At best, this bill is cheap political pandering. And frankly, as a black man, it is insulting.   Using the legislative process to virtue signal will not magically make all hate disappear. Only by bringing this community together, recognizing our common bonds, and tackling the real issues we have in this city will we end hatred.”

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