Hate Symbol Bill Passes In State Senate

Originally published in Jamestown Post-Journal on May 29, 2021.

Sen. George Borrello is voicing concerns over legislation that would prohibit the sale or display of hate symbols by municipalities, volunteer fire companies, police departments and schools.

S.4615, sponsored by Sen. Anna Kaplan, D-Carle Place, passed the Senate on Tuesday by a 56-7 vote, with Borrello voting against the bill. The Sunset Bay Republican said his concerns have less to do with generally accepted hate symbols and more to do with the bill’s vague definition of hate symbols that could leave local government entities defending themselves in court.

“I certainly understand the intent of this piece of legislation, but I would like to draw your attention to some of the amendments here, particularly line 10 where it says symbols of hate shall include, but not be limited to symbols of white supremacy and so on and so forth,” Borrello said. “My question is, ‘but not be limited to.’ Who determines then what is determined a symbol of hate?”

The bill text says symbols of hate can’t be displayed or sold, with the prohibited images including symbols of white supremacy, neo-Nazi ideology or the Battle Flag of the Confederacy. Sen. Michael Gianaris, D-Astoria and deputy Senate majority leader, said he would assume the determination would be made by either the state attorney general or by a court, with the court then deciding if the display was hateful or not.

Gianaris then noted that the bill was similar to legislation passed in 2020, which Borrello voted in favor of, prohibiting the sale and display of hate symbols on state property, namely the New York state Fair. In February 2021, Kaplan’s bill was proposed after a Long Island firehouse displayed a Confederate flag and later a Trump flag, according to Newsday reported.

“First of all I would encourage the good Senator to read more thoroughly the bills he votes on because the language is exactly the same as the bill he voted yes on,” Gianaris said. “It included the same exact definition of what a symbol of hate is, including the definition of ‘but not limited to,’ which you seem to be concerned about.”

Borrello responded that his vote in favor of the 2020 legislation was because the bill dealt with state-owned buildings and events, not the workings of local governments. Borrello and Gianaris debated the possibility of displays that could be problems, including a school district that asked a student to remove a “thin blue line” hat worn in remembrance of fallen police officers, “thin red line” displays in support of firefighters who died in the line of duty and “thin green line” displays in support of soldiers who die in the line of duty.

Gianaris said the examples Borrello cited wouldn’t fall under the law being proposed because the school itself had determined the student’s hat should be removed. S.4615 would only come into play if a complaint is made, he said.

The “thin blue line” flag led to graffiti being sprayed on a Jamestown homeowner’s sidewalk and street in front of the house last August.

“So I guess I’m still unclear because we’ve seen people who’ve considered the flag of the United States to be a symbol of hate, and I don’t see anywhere in this bill where we limited this,” Borrello said. “If this bill had limited to just white supremacy, neo-Nazi ideology and the Battle Flag of the Confederacy, that’s one thing. But it’s very broad and we still don’t really know what governing body gets to determine. If this bill said we’re going to create a commission to outline or to be some kind of adjudicatory body over what is a symbol of hate, that might be different. But this is very vague. It’s a poorly drafted piece of legislation in my opinion.”