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California lawmakers are considering a bill that would require law enforcement agencies to screen their officers for membership in hate groups, participation in hate group activities, or “public expressions of hate.”

Assembly Bill 655, introduced by San Jose Democratic Assemblyman Ash Kalra, also known as the CLEAR Act, would make such a screening part of the background check upon hiring, and also create a process where a complaint would trigger an investigation that, if sustained, could lead to that officer’s termination.

While the bill is intended to weed out white supremacists and other extremists from the ranks of law enforcement, conservative group the California Family Council argues that it goes much further than that. It argues that the bill would prevent observant Catholics and Muslims, as well as members of the Republican Party, from serving as police officers.

Claim: “Not only does (AB 655’s language) include armed militia groups and white supremacists promoting ‘domestic terrorism,’ it also includes police officers expressing conservative religious or political views on abortion, marriage, and gender or with membership in a political party or church that does.”

Rating: Mostly true

Context: It all boils down to the wording of the bill.

AB 655 defines hate speech as “any explicit expression, either on duty or off duty and while identifying oneself as, or reasonably identifiable by others as, a peace officer, in a public forum, on social media including in a private discussion forum, in writing, or in speech, as advocating or supporting the denial of constitutional rights of, the genocide of, or violence towards, any group of persons based upon race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.”

The California Family Council has seized upon the phrase “constitutional rights.”

The group contends that Kalra’s bill could apply, for example, to a practicing Catholic voicing opposition to abortion, or to a person belonging to the California Republican Party, which has a platform defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, in opposition to same-sex marriage. Supreme Court decisions have upheld the right for women to access abortion, and for same-sex couples to marry.

This interpretation of Kalra’s bill isn’t limited to the California Family Council.

Professor Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, said he applauds the effort behind the bill, but that the language as written needs to be tightened up.

“It’s so broad that I think it can ensnare within its prohibitions people who involve themselves in civil discourse but not necessarily in a way that puts other people at risk,” Levin said.

Levin, who specializes in analysis of hate crimes, terrorism and legal issues, said that the current language of the bill makes him uncomfortable.

“I’m a little concerned frankly of having the government, beyond a certain limitation, set a standard for an orthodoxy of acceptable viewpoints outside of something that is steeped-in-the-wool bigotry or encouragement of violence,” he said.

Levin said that the government has an obligation to protect the most vulnerable in society, but also has an obligation not to chill free speech.

Kalra’s office released a statement in response to the California Family Council’s opposition, stating that he is working with the bill’s sponsors on potential amendments to clarify the bill’s intent.

“I believe the simple requirement of conducting thorough background checks of law enforcement officers is critically needed and that the measure is a step in the right direction. Extremism, racism, and animus have no place among our law enforcement agencies and only contributes to the erosion of public confidence in the legitimacy and fairness of our justice system,” Kalra said in a statement provided to the Bee. “The CLEAR Act was drafted in a way that recognizes there can be nuances in a person’s affiliation with a ‘hate group’ and the legislation is not meant to identify specific groups, but rather focus on actions and behavior that perpetuate animus and violence. These definitions are a work in progress, and I am committed to providing greater clarity. I welcome discussions and debate on how best to do so.”

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Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for the Sacramento Bee. He has covered crime and politics from Interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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