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No hate crime charges have been filed against the man who shouted racial slurs at the Utah women’s basketball team

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A northern Idaho prosecutor will not file hate crime charges against an 18-year-old accused of making racist comments toward members of the Utah women’s basketball team during the NCAA tournament.

The deputy city attorney for the city of Coeur d’Alene made the announcement Monday, writing in a charging decision that while the use of the slur was “heinous” and “incredibly offensive,” there was no evidence to suggest the man threatened physical harm to the women or to their property. That means the conduct is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be charged under Idaho’s malicious harassment law, Ryan Hunter wrote.

Members of the University of Utah basketball team stayed at a hotel in Coeur d’Alene in March while they competed in the NCAA tournament in nearby Spokane, Washington. Team members were walking from a hotel to a restaurant when they say a truck pulled up and the driver shouted a racial slur at the group. After the team left the restaurant, the same driver returned and was “reinforced by others,” revving their engines and yelling at the players again, Tony Stewart, an official with the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, said shortly during a press conference. after the event.

The encounters were so disturbing that they left the group concerned for their safety, Utah coach Lynne Roberts said a few days later.

Far-right extremists have been present in the region for years. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were at least nine hate groups active in the Spokane and North Idaho area in 2018.

“We had several incidents of racist hate crimes against our program and (it was) incredibly disturbing for all of us,” Roberts said. “In our world, in athletics and in universities, it is shocking. There is so much diversity on a university campus and you don’t come into contact with that very often.”

University of Utah officials declined to comment Wednesday on the prosecutor’s decision.

In the document detailing the decision, Hunter said police interviewed nearly two dozen witnesses and pored over hours of surveillance footage. Several credible witnesses described a racial slur being hurled at the group as they walked to dinner, but their descriptions of the vehicle and the person shouting the slur varied, and police could not hear any sound of the shouting on the surveillance tapes. .

There was also no evidence linking the encounter before the team arrived at the restaurant to what happened when they left, Hunter wrote. Still, police were able to identify the occupants of a silver passenger car involved in the second encounter, and one of them – an 18-year-old high school student – ​​reportedly confessed to shouting a slur and an obscene statement at the group, Hunter. said.

Prosecutors considered whether to file three possible charges against the man – malicious harassment, disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace – but decided they did not have enough evidence to support any of the three charges.

That’s because Idaho’s hate crime law makes racial harassment a crime only if it is done with the intent to threaten or cause physical harm to a person or their property. The man who shouted the slur told police he did it because he thought it would be funny, Hunter wrote.

“Beyond the absurdity of that statement and the hideously disgusting thought process required to believe that it would be humorous to say something so disgusting,” it undermines the premise that the man had the specific intent to intimidate and harass, Hunter wrote.

The hate speech also did not meet Idaho’s disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace requirements, which mainly deal with when and where noise or unruly behavior occurs. The insults were shouted on a busy thoroughfare in the early evening hours, so the level of noise was not unusual for that time and place.

Hunter wrote that his office shares in the outrage sparked by the man’s “hideously racist and misogynistic statement, and we join us in unequivocally condemning that statement and the use of racial slurs in this case, or under any circumstances.” then. But under current law, that cannot form the basis for criminal prosecution in this case.”

The First Amendment protects even hateful or offensive speech, said Aaron Terr, director of public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which advocates for freedom of speech and thought.

“While that means that we sometimes have to hear statements that we abhor, it is an important principle because the only alternative is for the government to decide when statements are too offensive. That is a subjective judgment, and it would open the door for the government to arbitrarily suppress views it does not like,” Terr said.

There are a few exceptions to the First Amendment, Terr said, but they are limited and well-defined.

“For example, the First Amendment does not protect actual threats, which are statements that express a serious intent to cause physical harm to an individual or to put him or her in fear of physical harm,” Terr said. “Sedition is also unprotected, but to qualify as sedition the speech must be intended and likely to cause immediate unlawful action.”

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