Authorities arrested a 14-year-old white male student at Naperville High School in Naperville, Illinois, and charged him with committing a hate crime.
What the teen did was genuinely bad: He took a picture of a black classmate and posted a "slave for sale" ad on Craigslist. The school suspended him, and it was right to do so.
But now the police are involved, and the teen faces two felony hate crime charges as well as a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge.
The teen was in court on Wednesday, according to the Chicago Tribune:
Prosecutors called the allegations "serious and aggravating," and said the alleged actions put the victim's safety at risk. The hate crime counts are juvenile felonies and the disorderly charge is a misdemeanor.
[Defense attorney Harry] Smith said the student is serving an in-school suspension and his client and the victim have a meeting scheduled before the school principal where the youth will formally apologize. Smith described the pair as friends.
State's Attorney Robert Berlin issued a statement Wednesday in which he called the allegations "beyond disturbing."
"Hate crimes have no place in our society and will not be tolerated in DuPage County," Berlin said. "Anyone, regardless of age, accused of such disgraceful actions will be charged accordingly."
For the authorities to charge someone with a hate crime, there must be an underling crime. Simply holding or expressing hateful views is not illegal—indeed, it is protected by the First Amendment. Prosecutors can consider hate crime charges only when hate is the motivating factor in the commission of a crime, such as assault or vandalism.
Since disorderly conduct is the only other item here, the hate crime charges presumably stem from that. Disorderly conduct is often a broad category of offense, and such is certainly the case under Illinois law: "A person commits disorderly conduct when he or she knowingly does any act in such unreasonable matter as to alarm or disturb another and to provoke a breach of the peace." The disorderly conduct charge is a misdemeanor, but the hate crime charges are felonies, making this an extremely serious criminal matter for a 14-year-old kid.
I don't know what was going through his head when he posted the Craigslist ad—news article suggest the two boys were former friends—and I do not object at all to the school itself taking punitive action. But should the cops really be arresting 14-year-olds, and subjecting them to life-derailing felony charges, for incidents of nonviolent bullying? School is supposed to teach young people to behave responsibly, not shuffle them into the criminal justice system at the first sign of trouble. This is far too harsh an outcome, and it shows one of the dangers of having hate crime laws on the books at all: They give cops more opportunities to overcharge.