Our opinion: Toward a Vermont where all are welcome

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Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan confirmed in eight words what many have known all along: "Kiah Morris was a victim of racial harassment."

The allegations against Morris' antagonists, however, do not constitute criminal activity under state law, Donovan explained. As a result, authorities have no legal basis to bring charges against them.

But that makes Donovan's declaration that Morris was racially harassed no less powerful - as long as it's the starting point for real change.

Morris, the former state representative from Bennington who was the Legislature's only black woman member, quit her post in September in part because of the harassment.

"We have an obligation speak up as a community against racism and hate," Donovan told a crowd Monday in Bennington. "We must work together as a state to call out hate, bring these incidents to light, and support people of color. Every Vermonter has a right to live free of fear."

Donovan has given law enforcement across Vermont a mandate to report cases of racial bias and hate crimes directly to his office.

The racial harassment Kiah Morris endured is not a crime in Vermont. After you read what Morris was subjected to by her racist antagonists, from social media trolling to in-person intimidation, it's hard to fathom why it isn't.

Vermont's law has not kept up with the times. And when the law proves insufficient, the law must change — after careful and precise scrutiny and debate.

Morris' antagonists claim free speech protections, but there's a clear difference. Hate speech crosses the line from free speech as it becomes behavior: It is words that are used to terrorize and intimidate; and as behavior [such as intimidation], it is not entitled to the protections which our Constitution gives to free speech.

As a state, Vermont has good intentions, and it does better than some. But we are not immune to the discrimination that poisons this nation as a whole, from our early history to this crucial moment. Hate is bad for Vermont in every conceivable way. It won't help the state grow its workforce. It won't bring tourists here. And it corrodes and corrupts our very souls.

We journalists stand firmly for freedom of speech because it is the lifeblood of this country as well as our profession. But free speech is not an absolute right, and legal precedent has made that plain. It carries responsibilities and in some cases comes with criminal charges: You cannot shout fire in a crowded theater; you cannot own or distribute images of children being sexually assaulted; and you cannot libel and slander people without the possibility of legal consequences.

We have made these distinctions because we have recognized there is a point where speech ceases to be speech and becomes odious behavior and it must be regulated within the constraints of the law.

Following a scathing report on racial harassment in Vermont's public schools in 1999, the Legislature passed laws intended to protect students from such willful harm. "No Vermont student should feel threatened or be discriminated against while enrolled in a Vermont school," declares Vermont state law (16 V.S.A. 570), and rightfully so.

Why that's illegal in a school, but it's somehow OK to tell an African-American adult that "the only place you're going to be safe is Africa" and "better to heed the warnings than be eliminated," boggles the mind. That has to end.

Thousands of Vermonters enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War, and many of them were killed or wounded as they fought to end the stain and shame of slavery. And yet, here we are, more than 150 years later, facing the knowledge that an African-American, freely and fairly elected by her community to represent it in Montpelier, faced threats and harassment that led her to decide to step down. We must do better.

"We did everything we were supposed to do," Morris said of her and her family's efforts to end the harassment. She said she "trusted in a system that in the end was insufficient."

Vermont's law has not kept up with the times. And when the law proves insufficient, the law must change after careful and precise scrutiny and debate.

Racism must be quashed here and everywhere, and what happened to Kiah Morris must never be allowed to happen to another African-American in Vermont.


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