Republicans say Orwellian ‘bias registry’ could still be created under new law
Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero testifies before the House’s public safety committee Jan. 17 in support of a bill sponsored by Rep. Samantha Vang, right, to expand the reporting of crimes motivated by bias. Photo by Andrew VonBank/Minnesota House Information.
A Minnesota bill that would have created a state government database of “hate incidents” — which drew impassioned opposition from Republicans who said it would police constitutionally protected political speech — was quietly watered down during the waning days of the legislative session.
The state Department of Human Rights will not compile a database of hate speech, which is what drew fierce debate and national attention from conservative media.
But Republicans aren’t ready to accept victory, pointing to the funding that was left intact. They say that could allow unelected bureaucrats to decide what’s bias, and to compile a database of provocative speech that could be used as a weapon against political opponents.
Rep. Samantha Vang, DFL-Brooklyn Park, responding to a rise in anti-Asian bigotry, sponsored a bill during the recent legislative session that would have had the Minnesota Department of Human Rights track incidents and give grants to community organizations to collect reports of hate speech. The human rights department would then compile a report.
Republican lawmakers called it an Orwellian idea that would trample on First Amendment rights. One compared it to Nazis gathering information to track down Jews.
During floor debate, Rep. Harry Niska, R-Ramsey, pressed Vang, asking whether reportable incidents could include someone opining that COVID-19 was a Chinese bioweapon; or wearing a T-shirt saying “I love J.K. Rowling,” which he said could be construed as gender identity bias given allegations the author is transphobic.
Vang said she thought the bioweapon comment could qualify because it’s “bias motivated,” but deferred to attorneys on the J.K. Rowling question.
Rep. Walter Hudson, R-Albertville, said during the debate that the bill would have the government collect data about speech that’s not criminal to identify “hotspots of bias.”
Rep. Hodan Hassan, DFL-Minneapolis, defended the proposal, noting during debate that two mosques had been burned in the prior 48 hours.
Although Vang’s bill didn’t pass, during a conference committee, remnants of it were added to a public safety bill requiring the human rights department to compile a biennial report analyzing civil rights trends and recommending policy changes to reduce hate incidents. The information would be compiled with the help of community organizations that work with historically marginalized communities.
Gov. Tim Walz’s original budget proposal for the human rights department included funding for the work: $395,000 in fiscal year 2024 and $250,000 annually after that to report on criminal and non-criminal “discrimination and hate incidents” statewide.
That’s a 7% increase in the department’s general fund budget next year, and 4.5% increase after that — enough to hire two full-time staffers and upgrade the department’s data tracking capabilities.
The new initiative would build off the department’s Discrimination Helpline, which was launched amid a rise in anti-Asian bigotry during the pandemic.
Taylor Putz, spokesman for the state human rights department, said lawmakers revised the legislation to merely require a report rather than exhaustive tracking of hate speech. Niska, however, questions why the money is still allocated for something he thinks should take a few hours to produce. He said the legislation was just made more vague and could still allow policing of political speech.
Putz said the funding is what the Legislature appropriated to prepare the report.
Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, said Republicans stirred up confusion about the bill during floor debate, so Democrats worked to update and clarify the legislation.
“HF181 was an expansive and important effort led by community organizations and unfortunately became highly politicized this year,” she said. “People worked on the bill for years, and it’s unfortunate that everyone followed the GOP in misconstruing the effort as a ‘bias registry.’”
Niska said he and another lawmaker, Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, met with Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Rebecca Lucero in May. Niska said Lucero told him the questions he raised during the floor debate were “spot on,” and that the department “didn’t want to collect that kind of information.”
Lucero supported Vang’s bill, however, during a January committee hearing on it.
Putz and Lucero declined to comment on Niska’s claim that Lucero agreed with his critique of the bill.
Despite what Democrats say about changes to the bill, Niska is still skeptical. He said the bill was revised “with the hope that people would accept that they have done something different.”
“I think that debate was very embarrassing to them and they wanted to do a cosmetic fix,” Niska said. “Nobody talked to me about how to fix it until they said, ‘Oh, we’ve already fixed it.’”
The human rights department is already responsible for investigating discrimination, and hate crimes are tracked by the FBI and state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.
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