Senator's mask bill aims to take hoods off the Klan

Free-speech advocates fear infringing rights

February 23, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Halloween is safe.

But then trick-or-treaters were never the target of Sen. Leonard H. Teitelbaum's bill before the General Assembly to make wearing a mask, hood or other face covering a crime. He also wasn't interested in the party people and their masquerade balls, or thespians and their theatricals.

The Montgomery County Democrat's bill is aimed at the Ku Klux Klan, although no Klansmen showed up yesterday in Annapolis to defend their right to anonymity.

Teitelbaum's bill, before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, would make wearing a mask "in a manner intended to incite or produce an imminent breach of peace" punishable by five years in prison and a $2,500 fine.

"It provides for peaceful demonstrations, but it also says in these demonstrations you can't wear hoods and masks," he said before yesterday's hearing. "There's a tendency to incite riots and and cause violence because of wearing the mask."

Teitelbaum stood alone yesterday in making his plea. He called the bill "a valuable tool for combating the excesses of extremist groups and individu- als."

"Extremists shouldn't be hiding behind masks," he said.

Representatives from the Maryland Jewish Alliance, the American Civil Liberties Union and the public defender's office spoke against the bill. They prefaced their arguments by applauding Teitelbaum's intent, but noted their reservations. The bill could violate the constitutional right to freedom of speech, they said.

"The intent is to have a chilling effect on hate speech," Suzanne J. Smith, executive director of the ACLU, said before the hearing. "It is constitutionally protected and efforts, however well-meaning, to chill speech are not something that we would ever support."

Teitelbaum said he is aware of the free-speech issues, but also is concerned about the violence that often attends Klan rallies. Much of the violence, he said, stems not only from what people say but also from what they wear. Few American symbols are as potent or volatile as the Klan's regalia.

"I'm convinced that in our society we've become much more violent," he said. "In many respects, the propensity for violence has increased."

Klan activity has been reported sporadically in Maryland. One of the more recent incidents came last August when fliers inviting residents to join the group were distributed to homes in the North Laurel area.

Mindy K. Binderman, speaking on behalf of the ACLU said: "We're not sure taking the mask off the Klan will stop speech."

Virginia, Georgia and New York City have similar laws.

The Virginia law, which Teitelbaum used as a model, was recently upheld by the federal court. Last fall, New York City officials dug through their archives until they found an 1845 statute that made it illegal for people to wear a mask during a political rally. That measure allowed the city to strip Klansmen of their masks during a march in Manhattan.

Teitelbaum said he was optimistic about his bill's chances in the Senate committee.

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