Parents vs. Hate

In some situations, criminal and civil law can be used to prevent hate groups from recruiting minor children

Can parents or the state stop hate groups from recruiting minors? That's the question posed by a case pending in Illinois. Patrick Langballe, 23, has been charged with contributing to the delinquency of minors for allegedly recruiting high school students into a white supremacist group called the White War Commission.

Members of Langballe's group reportedly vandalized a synagogue, local businesses and public property in Cook County, Ill., in 1997.

Police say Langballe was a friend of Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, the neo-Nazi racist who killed himself after going on a deadly shooting spree over the July 4 weekend this year. Langballe has pleaded not guilty, and a planned November trial was recently postponed.

Under Illinois law, the fact that underage members of the White War Commission committed criminal acts is central to the state's case against Langballe. Illinois' contributing-to-the-delinquency-of-a-minor statute imposes criminal liability only on those adults who contribute to a minor's violation or attempted violation of a law. 702 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 130/2a, 130/1a (1999).

But in many states the law is much broader.

'Morals' and the First Amendment
In Ohio, for example, it is a criminal violation not only to encourage a minor to violate the law, but also to encourage a minor to become "an unruly child ." Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2919.24 (1999). Ohio's definition of "unruly child" is quite expansive.

It includes a minor who acts in a manner that endangers his or her own "morals" or the "morals of others," one who "associates with ... notorious or immoral persons," as well as one who is "habitually disobedient" to his or her parents . Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2151.022 (1999).

Whenever hate mongers target young people, one might argue that they violate statutes like Ohio's. From a commonsensical point of view, teaching a child to hate endangers his or her "morals," and hate mongers are "notorious or immoral persons."

But, from a legal standpoint, there are obvious constitutional problems to applying the law in such a fashion. Most communities would consider people like William Pierce — the leader of the neo-Nazi National Alliance who recently purchased the youth-oriented, white power music label Resistance Records — to be a "notorious or immoral" person.

But Pierce is also a person with First Amendment rights. The state cannot invoke the judicial process to label him "notorious" for using racist rock to recruit young people and then punish him merely because most people would find his views appalling and a danger to the morals of children.

Pierce may target young people with his venom over the Internet or through his publications and CDs, but these activities cannot be suppressed merely because some young people may be corrupted.

'Delinquency' as Cause of Action
Even if minors are not led into actual criminal conduct, as they apparently were in Langballe's case, there are certain circumstances in which contributing-to-the-delinquency statutes probably can be used to stop hate group recruitment without running afoul of constitutional guarantees.

Statutes like those in Ohio make it a crime to encourage a minor to be "habitually disobedient" — that is, to encourage a minor to refuse to "subject himself or herself to the reasonable control of his or her parents." Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 2151.022 (1999). Many other states have similar provisions. See, e.g., Ark. Code Ann. § 5-27-205(a)(5) (1997); Ga. Code Ann. §§ 15-11-2(12), 16-12-1(b) (1999); Ind. Code Ann. §§ 31-37-2-4, 35-46-1-8 (1999); Nev. Rev. Stat. §§ 201.090(10), 201.110 (1997); N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 7B-1501(27), 14-316.1 (1999).

If a hate group leader recruits a minor after being warned by the minor's parents that the minor has been prohibited from associating with the group, the leader would appear to violate the statute. The theory would be that by encouraging the minor to defy his or her parents, the hate group leader is encouraging the child to refuse to "subject himself ... to the control of his ... parents."

Because the violation of a criminal statute can be the basis of a private civil lawsuit, parents could use the law not only to swear out a criminal complaint, but also to bring a damage action or a suit for injunctive relief against hate mongers who recruit their children after being warned to back off.

Using statutes like Ohio's to stop hate groups from recruiting minors in this fashion rests on the right of parents to control their children, not on any state-sanctioned notion of what is "immoral" or "notorious." But, in light of the First Amendment, the law must be blind in such circumstances.

Just as such a law could be used to stop a white supremacist from recruiting children over their parents' objections, so it also could be employed to stop those who preach brotherhood from recruiting the children of neo-Nazis over their parents' protests. Parental control, not political orthodoxy, is the underlying premise of the law in this area.