Hate Speech is Not Free Speech: Chilean Students’ Killer had a History of Xenophobia

On the morning of Thursday, February 27, 14 friends gathered at a townhome in Miramar Beach, Florida for a party. At around 1:45 am, Dannie Roy Baker, who lived in the same complex as the hosts, crossed the compound with a rifle and opened fire on the partygoers.

By the time police arrived at the scene, five people had been shot—two of them fatally—and the shooter had returned to his home, where he awaited the arrival of police. Since his arrest, Dannie Baker has not spoken to the police so his motive for the killings is not known. But enough information has come out to indicate that it was at least partially motivated by the fact that the victims’ were not native-born Americans. All 14 people at the party, including Baker’s five victims, are Latinos. The two he killed were Chilean students visiting the US as part of a work-study program.

The story is not getting widely picked up in the national media and one of the first places to compile details was the Daily KOS, who reports that Dannie Baker had volunteered with the local Republican Electoral Committee during the 2004 presidential race, after which he apparently sent “radical” and “inappropriate” emails to other members. Baker’s emails were so disturbing that they were reported to the local sheriff’s department but, because the emails did not contain threats against a specific person, the sheriff’s department took no further action against him. The actual text of these emails has not yet been released.

Although Baker had no history of violence, it appears he was not entirely mentally or emotionally stable. According to Jim Anders, a member of the Republican Executive Committee, Baker was very “eccentric” and seemed to have “some emotional problems.” And Crystal Lynn, a neighbor of Baker’s, says “he did come up to me one time and asked me if I was ready for the revolution to begin and if I had any immigrant in my house to get them out.”

Until more information comes out, there’s no way to know what Dannie Baker wrote in those emails that so troubled people that they reported him to the police. Hopefully, he didn’t write about killing immigrants because that would mean the sheriff’s department screwed up big-time by not investigating him further and putting him someplace where he could not be a threat to others. A direct threat against a specific person should justifiably be grounds for police action, but so should threats against a specific group. After all, a hate crime does not target a specific person but it does target a specific group, identified by race, nationality, sexual orientation, or some other collective identity marker.

So if it turns out that Baker had made threats against Latinos or any other immigrant group, the Sheriff’s department should explain why they took no further police action against him. Freedom of speech permits deranged and sane people alike to say whatever they please, but if one of those crazy people rants against foreigners, sends “radical” and “inappropriate” emails, and tells his neighbor to get immigrants out of her house, that ought to be grounds for the local police to do something. Now two people are dead, three are wounded, and an entire community is traumatized. But of course, until the contents of Baker’s emails are released, there’s no way to know if he had made threats against a specific racial group.

At the end of the day, hate speech is not free speech, but it seems many Americans have trouble distinguishing the two. Or perhaps, with more Americans joining hate groups and anti-immigrant rhetoric—to say nothing of anti-immigrant action—becoming more mainstream, the question should not be whether Americans can recognize hate speech but whether and to what extent they are bothered by it. (The fact that several news outlets have mentioned the victims’ immigration status—as if that is relevant to the case!—further illustrates this country’s obsession with immigration. God only knows what the news coverage of this hate crime would look like if the victims had been in the country without the proper immigration paperwork!)

Now, twenty-three-year-old Nicolas Corp-Torres and twenty-two-year-old Racine Baldontin-Aragondona—two of Dannie Baker’s victims—are dead. But they might still be alive had local law enforcement understood, or cared about, the difference between hate speech and free speech the first time they had to deal with Dannie Baker.

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