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Free Speech on Thin Ice in Michigan: Implications of HB4474


In the state of Michigan, the famed adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is about to face a significant test, courtesy of the state’s legislature.

A recent development in Michigan’s House of Representatives has sparked a serious debate regarding the boundaries of free speech. The representatives have just passed HB4474, a bill that seeks to expand the definition of “hate speech” in a manner that seems to overturn traditional understandings of protected speech.

This controversial piece of legislation, yet to be signed into law, stipulates that a person can be considered guilty of a hate crime if their actions or words cause another individual to feel “intimidated” or “harassed,” or if they inflict “bodily injury” or “severe mental anguish.” The text of the bill includes a comprehensive list of protected characteristics, notably encompassing “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression.”

The bill further goes on to specify “gender identity or expression” as “having or being perceived as having a gender-related self-identity or expression whether or not associated with an individual’s assigned sex at birth.”

The definition of “intimidate or harass” according to this proposed law seems to be alarmingly vague: “willful course of conduct involving repeated or continuing harassment of another individual that would cause a reasonable individual to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed, or molested and that actually causes the victim to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated, threatened, harassed, or molested.”

The consequences of violating this new hate crime definition are, to put it mildly, severe. The convicted stands to face a felony charge, with a punishment of up to five years of imprisonment, a fine of up to $10,000, or both.

Given the potential impact on First Amendment rights, it comes as no surprise that this legislative action has elicited considerable concern from champions of free speech.

Defenders of HB4474 argue that the “repeated or continuing” clause of the bill should allay fears regarding an infringement of First Amendment rights. They posit that a one-off misgendering, for example, should not lead to fines or jail time.

However, this explanation doesn’t fully address the potential infringement on religious freedoms. Consider, for example, a pastor who declines to use certain pronouns due to religious convictions. Where does HB4474 end, and religious freedom begin?

With the bill’s passage in the House, it now advances to the Michigan state Senate. Considering the Democratic majority in both chambers, there’s a high probability it will land on the desk of Michigan’s Democratic Governor, Gretchen Whitmer.

Republican lawmakers have voiced substantial criticism of the bill. State Rep. Angela Rigas expressed concern over the potential for the “gender delusion issue” to be used as a ‘protected class,’ leading to a further “weaponization of the system against conservatives.”

Another state representative, Steve Carra, argued that while protecting citizens from threats, violence, and crime is indeed important, the basis should not be an individual’s subjective feelings of fear.

Given Governor Whitmer’s history of vocal Democratic stances, it seems likely that she will approve the bill, should it reach her desk. Yet, the implications of this legislation on free speech and religious freedom remain unresolved, and time will tell whether Michigan is about to take a chilling step toward limiting these foundational freedoms.

Alexandra Russel
Alexandra Russel
Highly respected journalist and political commentator with over a decade of experience in the industry. Alex was born and raised in Florida, where she developed a passion for writing at a young age, leading her to pursue a degree in journalism from the University of Florida. After graduation, she worked as a political reporter for several local and national publications before being appointed as the chief editor at Conservative Fix.

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