Jim Dey | Illinois adopts new tactic in confronting race-related crime

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Carroll County authorities filed criminal charges against a White woman and her son for their racially motivated misconduct aimed at a Black neighbor.

But in a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, the Illinois attorney general recently upped the ante by filing a civil lawsuit against them that alleges they engaged in hate-motivated crimes and demands potentially lofty financial penalties.

The lawsuit alleges that 67-year-old Cheryl Hampton and her 45-year-old son, Chad, committed the offenses of intimidation and disorderly conduct — two predicate offenses for commission of a civil hate crime under a new Illinois law.

The lawsuits seek penalties of up to $25,000 from each violation from the Hamptons.

Both the criminal charges filed by the state’s attorney and the civil lawsuit stem from incidents that occurred in the summer and fall of 2020, when the Hamptons hung a dummy that the state claims was an effigy of their next-door neighbor, Gregory Johnson, a Black man, in their yard and in full view of his property.

The lawsuit alleges they hung the effigy as an act of intimidation, a felony.

The effigy was the culmination of a series of incidents in which the Hamptons allegedly vandalized Johnson’s yard by spraying it with weed killer and damaged a plastic fence he put up after someone tore up part of his yard by driving a vehicle on it.

The incidents occurred in Savanna, a small northern Illinois town of roughly 3,000 along the Mississippi River. They drew the attention of municipal officials, including the mayor and police chief. Both visited the Hamptons’ residence in a fruitless effort to persuade them to remove the effigy.

They refused, leading authorities to file a misdemeanor charge of criminal damage to property against the son for damaging the yard and the felony charge of intimidation against the mother for putting up the effigy, ostensibly to scare her neighbor into silence.

The intimidation charges attack what might, under other circumstances, be construed as ugly, but legally protected, speech.

University of Illinois College of Law Dean Vikram Amar noted that “threats, harassment and libel” are not “protected speech.” He said “all threats are a form of expression,” and making a determination between what is and is not legally protected depends upon the context.

“Hanging someone in effigy could certainly amount to a true threat,” Amar said.

The lawsuit alleges that Cheryl Hampton made no secret of her objection to having a Black neighbor when she moved into a rental house next door to the residence Johnson owned.

Prior to the effigy being hoisted, Johnson had complained to police about the Hamptons’ “aggressive conduct toward him” that included vandalizing his lawn.

After Chad Hampton was charged with damaging Johnson’s property, he and his mother allegedly escalated their conduct by first posting swastikas, the symbol of Nazi Germany, on a garage facing Johnson’s property, then hoisting the “lynched effigy” from a tree next to Johnson’s property.

When police spoke with Cheryl Hampton about the effigy, she said she was “tired of Johnson complaining about everything she and her son did.” When asked to take it down or move it to a location where Johnson could not see it, she refused.

After police seized the effigy as evidence, her son called the police department to complain that police damaged his property because they “had cut down the lynched effigy.”

A 2018 law authorizes the attorney general’s office to take civil action for “specified hate” crimes “independent of criminal prosecution.”

The lawsuit seems certain to raise the misunderstood issue of “hate speech.”

Amar said there is “no legal category known as hate speech,” merely speech that is constitutionally protected and speech that is not because it spills over into prohibited areas of conduct.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-393-8251.

via The News-Gazette

June 9, 2022 at 07:22AM

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