It is pretty clear that Timothy Trybus broke the law when he harassed Mia Irizarry for wearing a T-shirt featuring the Puerto Rican flag at a park in Chicago last month. But now that the Cook County State's Attorney's Office has charged Trybus with hate crimes in addition to assault and disorderly conduct, the government is trying to punish him for his opinions as well as his actions.
During the June 14 incident, which you can watch in a viral video that Irizarry recorded with her cellphone, an audibly intoxicated and belligerent Trybus repeatedly confronted her in and near a gazebo she had reserved for a birthday party and berated her. "Why are you wearing that?" he asked, pointing at the flag shirt. "This is America….You're not gonna change us, you know that?…You should not be wearing that in the United States of America….If you're an American citizen, you should not be wearing that shirt in America."
Trybus did not touch Irizarry, but he got uncomfortably close and raised his voice, notwithstanding her requests that he leave her alone. Meanwhile, a park police officer who has since resigned stood by passively, ignoring Irizarry's pleas for help, although he did ultimately tell Trybus to "shut the fuck up."
The initial charges against Trybus seem to fit his behavior. Under Illinois law, someone commits assault when he "knowingly engages in conduct which places another in reasonable apprehension of receiving a battery." Disorderly conduct includes "any act" committed "in such unreasonable manner as to alarm or disturb another and to provoke a breach of the peace." Both offenses are Class C misdemeanors, punishable by a fine of up to $1,500 and up to 30 days in jail. By contrast, the hate crime charges filed last week, taking into account the enhancement for offenses committed in a public park, are Class 3 felonies, punishable by two to five years in prison.
The hate crime provision applies when someone commits any of several offenses, including assault and disorderly conduct, "by reason of the actual or perceived race, color, creed, religion, ancestry, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental disability, or national origin of another individual or group of individuals." In this case, the allegation presumably is that Trybus harassed Irizarry at least partly because of her race, color, or ancestry, which seems like a reasonable supposition.
But even if that's true, it's hard to deny that Trybus faces the possibility of years rather than weeks behind bars because of the views he expressed about the propriety of displaying the Puerto Rican flag. If he had instead objected to T-shirt advocating marijuana legalization or Donald Trump's impeachment, he might still have been arrested for assault and disorderly conduct, but he would not be charged with felonies. The subject he chose and the position he took were crucial in determining the penalties he now faces.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who joined Cook County Commissioner Jesus Garcia and the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Illinois in calling for hate crime charges against Trybus, made it clear that the goal is to emphasize that certain opinions are beyond the pale and should never be publicly aired. "People have to learn there are consequences, especially in the era of Trump," Gutierrez told the Chicago Tribune. "I really do believe there are people who say to themselves, 'If Trump can do it, I can do it. Why can't I go out there and say the things the president says?'"
Gutierrez, in other words, hopes the threat of prison will deter people from echoing the president's controversial views on matters related to race and immigration. That expectation should give pause to anyone who doubted that enhancing criminal penalties based on a defendant's bigoted beliefs poses a danger to freedom of speech.