California is home to the largest skinhead population and the most developed white supremacist gangs in the country, the Anti-Defamation League told state senators during a hearing at the Capitol on Tuesday.
But there’s little the Legislature can do to stop white supremacists from publicly expressing their racist views or organizing events similar to the deadly rally in Charlottesville, Va., without violating the First Amendment of the Constitution.
“As I try to tell my students, the only way our free speech will be protected tomorrow is if we safeguard the speech we do not like today,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional scholar and dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law.
The California Senate held the first of a series of hearings to probe the delicate balance of combating hate, protecting free speech and ensuring safety as the country grapples with contentious public protests and heightened racial tensions. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León announced in August that the Senate would investigate the rise in white supremacy in California as San Francisco officials braced for what turned out to be peaceful rallies that some had feared might become dangerous in the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests.
“These are not easy questions to answer,” said Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, who presided over the hearing as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We’re seeing a huge rise in acts of hate. That’s a very serious problem we need to address.”
Jackson and other lawmakers have repeatedly linked a rise in racial strife to the 2016 presidential campaign and President Donald Trump’s comments about various ethnic groups.
Law enforcement agencies reported an 11.2 percent spike in total hate crimes across California in 2016, the second year in a row the state saw double-digit increases, according to a report released this summer by the California Department of Justice. Race-related hate crimes jumped 21.3 percent and accounted for the majority of the incidents reported that year.
At the hearing, Chemerinsky offered lawmakers an overview on free speech law and law enforcement explained lessons learned from a violent protest at the state Capitol between neo-Nazis and antifa counterprotestors last year, as well as the cancellation of a talk by the far right’s Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley in February.
Representatives from Islamic, Jewish, African American, LGBT and immigrant groups discussed children being bullied and other impacts on communities that have been targeted.
Joanna Mendelson, senior investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, testified about various groups, from skinheads to the alt-right, that operate in the state. She said most white supremacists in California do not belong to specific organizations, making it difficult to quantify them.
Both the Aryan Brotherhood and the Nazi Low Riders, two major white supremacist prison gangs, trace their roots to California. She said white supremacist groups focus on recruiting young people, and that in the last school year, white supremacists distributed racist fliers and stickers 27 times on college campuses. In March, the Aryan Underground posted anti-Semitic fliers around a Riverside high school.
The heaviest concentration of white supremacist activity in the state is in Riverside, San Bernardino, Lancaster, Palmdale, Ventura County, Orange County, San Diego and along Highway 99 from Fresno to Sacramento, Mendelson said.
Republican lawmakers complained that the speakers represented a one-sided view and that Ben Shapiro, a conservative commenter and former Breitbart editor who now leads the Daily Wire, was denied a slot on one of the panels. Shapiro became the top journalistic target of anti-Semitic Tweets after criticizing Trump during the election.
“I was asked by legislative Republicans to come here,” Shapiro said after the hearing. “They wanted to actually have me on one of the panels but Democrats wouldn’t allow that sort of thing because that might be too much free speech. They wanted to ensure that only people on the left get to talk and members of law enforcement.”
Chemerinsky defended free speech in his comments to the Legislature and the importance of offering open forums to express all types of views on college campuses. He also pointed out the exorbitant cost of employing extra officers to ensure public safety for controversial speakers. The tab for Yiannopoulos’ canceled talk totaled $1 million, the professor said, while Shapiro’s hit $600,000.
During public comment, Shapiro said antifa and violent groups came out to stop his speech and should be blamed for the cost. He said the Legislature was failing to distinguish between free speech and violence.
After the hearing, Jackson said she knew little about Shapiro until recently and he didn’t seem to be someone “whose testimony today would be particularly helpful” for a discussion at a hearing titled “Combating Hate While Protecting the Constitution.”
A second hearing will take place Oct. 18 in the Senate Public Safety Committee.