Cracking Down on Hate Crimes in Utah

Bailey Van Wagoner, Business Manager, Managing Editor, Web Editor

Hate crime legislation in Utah has had a complicated history, but, after decades of struggle, a new hate crimes law passed that aims to create real consequences for bias-motivated offenders and promote tolerance throughout the state.

On April 2nd, Governor Gary Herbert made history when he signed Senate Bill 103 into law. This landmark for hate crime legislation has been years in the making, and legislators hope it will make a greater impact than previous laws.

Utah’s first hate crimes legislation passed in 1992, but it proved to be ineffective in enhancing the punishments of offenders. The laws were vague when it came to categorizing hate crimes. They also completely removed the phrase “sexual orientation” and instead listed “any other categories that the division finds appropriate,” thereby excluding the LGBTQ+ community from the list of protected groups. In 2006, another law passed addressing the classification of hate crimes, but the definition remained vague.

Prosecutors found it impossible to enforce these laws in court. In the nearly 25 years that this hate crime legislation had been in effect, no defendant received a harsher penalty due to their involvement in a hate crime.

For legislators who witnessed the effects of hate crimes in Utah, these laws were unacceptable. For this reason, Stephen Urquhart sponsored yet another bill in 2016 in hopes of giving “teeth” to the existing laws and protecting the LGBTQ+ community. The bill was struck down.

Similar legislation failed again in 2017 and 2018. Daniel Thatcher (sponsor of SB 103), however, was determined to create an effective law in prosecuting offenders and protecting every marginalized group. Thatcher said, “…you must include the LGBTQ community…That is the one requirement. You cannot exclude any person.”

One of the greatest obstacles for this bill were the concerns about freedom of speech. The opposition worried that this bill would begin to infringe on Utahns’ first amendment rights. They believed that this bill would penalize the attitudes of offenders and limit the subjects that people can talk about.

Thatcher said in response that he is “not interested in going after people who are bigots,” rather he is “interested in stopping people who are using criminal actions to threaten and intimidate entire communities.”

Now, after 27 years of perseverance, Utah has a stronger hate crimes law. Legislators hope that after including a list of characteristics by which a victim may be targeted, courts will have a usable law to prosecute offenders and increase their penalties. They think that this change will encourage greater tolerance of people all across the state. Copper Hills High School is no exception.

While this particular legislation may not impact students directly, its ideas do have an effect on the student body. As the legislature becomes more aware of problems regarding discrimination and marginalization, so must the citizens. And, in a school as diverse as Copper Hills, tolerance is key in creating a safe environment for students, faculty, and the community.