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Washington State To Get Hotline for “Bias Incidents” Which Are Defined As “Hostile Expressions of Animus”

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Presented as an effort to address unreported hate crimes and “bias incidents,” Washington State is launching a new hotline initiative, according to recent decisions by state lawmakers. This initiative, established under Senate Bill 5427, aims to offer a non-police option for supposed victims, with the hotline operational in at least three counties by 2025, and statewide by 2027.

We obtained a copy of the bill for you here.

The hotline, a key feature of the bill sponsored by Sen. Javier Valdez and others, is mandated to function during standard business hours. Its primary role is to guide victims towards relevant local services that are culturally sensitive and informed about trauma, as well as to compile these incidents for annual reports, maintaining the confidentiality of personal details.

Under current Washington law, hate crimes are defined as actions driven by malicious intent against a person’s race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and other characteristics, and are considered felony offenses. SB 5427 introduces the concept of “bias incidents,” described as “hostile expressions of animus” related to various personal characteristics. These incidents are distinguished from hate crimes and are not criminal in nature.

Supporters of the bill argue that the hotline is a necessary tool.

However, the bill has not been without controversy. The initiative’s introduction of “bias incidents” as “hostile expressions of animus” related to personal characteristics is problematic due to its vague definition. This broad and subjective categorization might cover a wide range of behaviors, including those protected under free speech, leading to the reporting of speech that is offensive but not unlawful.

There’s a risk that the presence of a state-endorsed mechanism to report these incidents might discourage individuals from expressing their views, especially if those views are unpopular or controversial. The fear of being reported for legal expressions of opinion could lead to self-censorship, which is counter to the principles of free speech. While some speech is often detestable to some, it is generally protected under US free speech laws unless it incites imminent violence or includes specific threats. The hotline initiative might blur the line between so-called hate speech and free speech.

Furthermore, the effectiveness of the hotline in differentiating between bias incidents and protected speech depends heavily on the training and judgment of those operating it. There’s a concern that it could be misused to target individuals based on ideological disagreements or personal vendettas.

Additionally, the initiative could have broader implications for public discourse. By encouraging the reporting of a range of “bias incidents,” it might contribute to an environment where open and honest discussions about sensitive topics are hindered, affecting the exchange of diverse viewpoints.

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