A group of white supremacists have targeted West Valley neighborhoods with derogatory and racist leaflets at least for the second time in the past two months. Residents want this to stop, but law enforcement officials have not found a chargeable offense, and elected leaders, keen to ditch the issue to other officials or government agencies, did not do much to suppress.
At the heart of the matter are questions about what kind of speech the First Amendment protects and what, if anything, can or should be done when the First Amendment protects language that makes people feel unsafe.
Residents of four neighborhoods near Litchfield Park, El Mirage and Glendale received blasphemous and offensive flyers over the weekends of July 10 and 17, Amy Meglio, a Phoenix-based community organizer told The Arizona Republic.
The flyers, which were shared with The Republic, degrade blacks, gays and Jews and warn people to accept Jesus as Christ. Some of the flyers were rehearsals of documents distributed one month ago in another neighborhood in the Litchfield Park area.
Aryan Nations Arizona branch chief David Miner told The Republic last month that his 30-member group was responsible for the June cast and that they have more plans in the coming months.
The Republic could not confirm whether the July leaflets belonged to the same group.
A First Amendment expert who reviewed the flyers obtained by the Republic said the content was likely protected by law because the language, despite its vulgarity and intimidating nature, did not constitute “fighting words” or incite not to immediate illegal action.
A spokesperson for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office said of the flyers in June that the department was “unable to determine that a crime had been committed” but said the case “remains an open investigation” .
At least two households reported the flyers to the sheriff’s office in June, but it is not clear if new reports have been filed. Meglio said some residents were reluctant to report for fear of reprisal.
Matthew Brown, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League, a national anti-hate organization, said residents should report hate incidents to create a paper trail in case prosecutors indict perpetrators in the future.
Whether or not legal action is immediately available, there are powerful steps residents, law enforcement and city officials can take in the event of hate, Brown said.
Largely oblivious city rulers barely react to hate
After reports of white supremacist leaflets first surfaced near Litchfield Park in June, Mayor Tom Schoaf said the city did not tolerate racism but would take no action because the distribution had taken held in an unincorporated area – neighborhoods near Litchfield Park but not technically within the city limits.
Schoaf reiterated his comments after the leaflets resurfaced this month, closer to town but across the street on county land.
Glendale Mayor Jerry Weiers said he had not heard of any flyers in his town.
Mayor Alexis Hermosillo of El Mirage, where another neighborhood was reportedly towed but which the Republic could not confirm, did not immediately respond to the Republic’s request for comment.
A spokesperson for Maricopa County Supervisor Clint Hickman, who represents the unincorporated areas near Litchfield Park and Glendale, said Hickman had not heard of the flyers and had no comment, but encourage residents to report incidents to law enforcement.
Residents refrain from reporting to the police
Unlike last month, when at least two households reported the flyers to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, Meglio said residents fear retaliation this time around and are refraining from reporting the incident.
Some residents, especially those with mixed-race households, wonder if they should have moved into the neighborhoods entirely, Meglio said.
Glendale area resident David Olsen told The Republic he immediately threw the leaflets left on his and his neighbors’ lawns, but refrained from reporting the incident because he believed the distribution probably wasn’t a crime.
Still, Olsen wants to raise awareness of what’s going on and prevent it from happening again, he said.
“I don’t want it in my neighborhood,” he said. The anonymity of the leaflets “is loose” and may “leave a question mark” about who did it, making exchanges with neighbors uncomfortable, he added.
Olsen also said he didn’t feel directly targeted or in danger, that his neighborhood was “quite mixed up” and that he didn’t want others to feel unsafe.
Jacob Raiford, a community organizer for WE Rising who led the Phoenix area protests against police brutality last summer and is a member of the Tempe Public Safety Advisory Task Force, said residents might not speak out if they do not feel supported by their elected leaders.
White supremacy has a history of violence, Raiford said, and residents should feel supported when they voice their concerns.
All elected leaders, regardless of what is within their jurisdiction or not, have a moral obligation to condemn hatred, he said.
This means firmly denouncing “clever” leaflets, but also subtle acts of racism, Raiford said.
What to do in the face of hate
White supremacist groups typically have flyer or sticker communities with hate propaganda to spread their ideology and intimidate groups of people with as little control as possible, Brown told The Republic.
Often the messages are subtle and referred to as “patriotic” to suit the mainstream culture, he said.
This can make the burden on distributors more difficult.
The law lets people “breathe” a lot for their offensive and vulgar opinions, said Gregg Leslie, executive director of the First Amendment Clinic at Arizona State University.
“The class of speech that isn’t protected is speech that equates to ‘fighting words’,” Leslie said – that is, language so close to starting a fight that you can’t. see it as doing something else. Or, it should be called for “imminent and lawless action”.
The speech in the flyers, Leslie said, is technically someone’s opinion.
“No one is saying that this message in the leaflets is important,” he said, but the law allows “bad, angry and even wrong speech”.
Still, Brown said residents should report the incidents to local police to create a paper trail. If prosecutors indict the same perpetrator, they could use the documented hate history to build a case.
Then law enforcement should develop a protocol to respond to hate, even if the incidents do not reach the level of criminal offenses. Brown said the Anti-Defamation League is partnering with law enforcement agencies across the country to provide education on hate crimes and extremism and develop helpful procedures.
Residents can also report acts of hate on the Anti-Defamation League website at adl.org/reportincident. The organization collects the data annually and shares reports with law enforcement, Brown said.
Elected leaders should speak out against hatred, spread education and awareness and bring communities together as another measure, Brown said.
They have the “bully’s pulpit” and must use it, he said.
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office did not answer all of The Republic’s questions but made the following comment:
“The MCSO takes all calls for service seriously. When a deputy answers a call for service and determines that a crime has been committed, the appropriate resources will be provided to ensure that the crime is addressed. If the Deputy Minister determines that there is insufficient evidence to establish that a crime has been committed, the complainant will then be informed of the findings and, if necessary, explain the reason why the appeal was not considered a felony under the revised Arizona law. MPs are working closely with the Maricopa County District Attorney‘s Office to determine if a case can be properly prosecuted. ”
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