A state official planned to meet with Columbia residents yesterday and today to inform them of legal action they can take against a groupof "skinheads" who have been distributing hate literature throughoutseveral neighborhoods.
If complaints are filed, it would be the first time in Maryland that purveyors of hate material -- which is typically protected under the First Amendment -- would be subject to legal penalties for their actions.
Sandra F. Dobson, the Fair Housing awareness coordinator for the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, said the recent distribution of more than 1,000 copies of the Racial Loyalty white-supremacist newspaper could be a civil offense punishable by a $10,000 fine.
Dobson said she plans to meet with residents of the Harper's Choice and Long Reach villages, where the newspaper was distributed on three occasions since Nov. 15, to advise them that they have a right to file a formal complaint with the Human Relations Commission.
Although distribution of hate literature is protected from criminal penalties by freedom of speech, the federal Fair Housing Act of 1988 stipulates that civil fines may be levied against anyone who uses the material to intimidate someone at their own home.
Specifically, the housing law, which Maryland adopted last summer, stipulates that "no person hasthe right to coerce, harass or intimidate a person's right to live where they choose," Dobson said.
On Monday, one distributor of the racist newspaper, Christopher Lee Falk, 18, of Columbia, said he and about 20 other members of a skinhead group were targeting Columbia partly because of the city's principles of racial integration.
"It'sa gray area, but we think it possibly could be a case that supersedes the right of free speech," Dobson said. "If people are being targeted because of where they live, then I want to let them know what their rights are."
The most recent distribution of the newspaper, which contains incendiary and violent messages about numerous ethnic groups, amounted to 1,000 copies on Monday, the eve of the holiday in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.
About 400 newspapers were left on lawns Jan. 10 and 100 on Nov. 15, prompting alarm and outrage from numerous residents and officials. Among them are County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who has asked the county Office of Human Rights to look into the situation and possibly offer counseling tothe members of the skinhead group.
Although small in number in Maryland, skinheads in recent years have been very active in passing out the Racial Loyalty newspaper throughout Baltimore County, said Capt. John Cook, of the state police Criminal Intelligence Division.
"Usually the papers are distributed by very small groups, but three tofive skinheads armed with these newspapers can intimidate a community," Cook said. "They cast a very tall shadow because that's a bigotednewspaper that frightens and offends a lot of people."
But police, county officials and community leaders have been powerless to stop the distribution of the papers because "it's a hate-bias incident, but not a crime," said Howard County Police Chief James N. Robey.
"No matter how distasteful it might be, we have an obligation to accepttheir right to pass out the papers. We can't ignore their right to free speech," Robey said.
Howard County NAACP President Bowyer G. Freeman, who on Jan. 11 held a press conference decrying the distribution of the papers and other racist incidents, said he hoped that county officials would make a public statement condemning the group handing out the literature.
"We want county officials to make it emphatically clear that we won't tolerate this garbage. It's offensive, it's ludicrous, and it's hurting people," Freeman said.
Through the human rights commission process, a complaint would be forwarded to a commission hearing examiner, who would then decide whether to bring the case to a hearing. If the examiner opted to go forward, the complaining party could choose to have the case heard before the commission or a federal judge, Dobson said.
If the defendant is found guilty,he or she would be subject to a $10,000 fine for a first offense, $25,000 fine for the second and $50,000 for the third.
Howard J. Ehrlich, research director for the National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence in Baltimore, said he didn't believe skinhead groups distributing the Racial Loyalty newspaper posed any grave threat.
"Part of what skinheads do is make a spectacle, both with their appearance and their actions on television, where they make a great photo shot," Ehrlich said. "Some see a much greater threat from them than we do. But they're a small group, and they're not growing."