ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is proposing changes in the state’s hate crime laws in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend.
The governor said Tuesday that in response the deadly clashes between white supremacists and counter-protesters on Saturday, he is proposing that the crimes of inciting to riot and rioting against a protected class be made offenses under the state’s “hate crimes” law.
Cuomo’s office said that the changes would affirm that while peaceful demonstrations are allowed, New York will not tolerate advocacy or the incitement of imminent violence against protected classes of people. The law protects people from discrimination based on their race, color, national origin, ancestry, gender, religion, religious practices, age, disability or sexual orientation.
“Our diversity is our strength and this legislation will help protect New Yorkers and send a clear signal that violence and discrimination have no place in our society,” Cuomo said in a news release. “New York is one community and one family, and we will never stop fighting to ensure the safety and equal treatment of all New Yorkers.”
Under the governor’s proposal, rioting would be raised from an E felony to a D felony when directed at a protected class, increasing the potential prison sentence. Inciting to riot would be increased from an A misdemeanor to an E felony, potentially the difference between a local jail sentence and state prison time.
While Cuomo said he will introduce legislation, the state Legislature isn’t due to return to Albany until January. Such proposals in the past have most commonly run into opposition in the state Senate, where Republicans effectively have control, rather than in the Democrat-controlled Assembly.
State Sen. George Amedore, R-Rotterdam, said he supports hate crimes legislation and would consider the bill if it comes before the Senate, but accused Cuomo of “pandering to a left-wing agenda” based on events in another state — events he acknowledged were terrible, when a car was driven into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring 19.
“Nobody should be hating, we should be uniting the country, but you really want to be realistic about increasing penalties,” Amedore said.
“He should be increasing the penalties on drug dealers who are killing our children in the streets on a daily basis,” said Amedore, chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse.
Another Republican, Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh of Ballston, condemned hateful activities and said she would consider supporting higher penalties for rioting and inciting a riot, but said she is also concerned that free speech remain protected, and that disagreements about ideas not be penalized because someone is a member of a protected group.
“I feel like we have to be careful that just because people have disagreements, that whatever we do protects free speech, even if the ideas are disagreeable or abhorrent,” the freshman legislator said.
The governor also again called on the Legislature to expand the state’s human rights law to protect all students, including those who attend public schools, since those students aren’t now covered by the law. Public schools are exempted from the law under a 2012 Court of Appeals decision.
Tuesday’s proposals are a followup after Cuomo on Monday signed new legislation increasing the penalties for those convicted of making bomb threats against community centers — a response to a string of bomb threats last winter against Jewish community centers around the country. Among those targeted by the threats, which were false, was the Albany JCC.
Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.
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