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On the Arbitrary Enforcement of Civil Rights Laws


A recent national news story told of the sentencing to prison of a former University of Mississippi student who, after excessive drinking and with a couple of fraternity brothers, during the night put a noose and Confederate battle emblem on the campus statue of racial justice hero James Meredith. Graeme Phillip Harris received six months in federal prison after pleading guilty to using a threat of force to intimidate a group of people at the university. Initially, he was indicted for conspiracy to violate civil rights, which would have potentially carried a ten-year sentence. Harris was clearly involved in the episode, but just because he pleaded guilty doesn’t necessarily mean that he believed he was intimidating anyone. Over 90 percent of criminal cases in the U.S. are not adjudicated at a trial, and Harris likely pleaded guilty because he wanted to avoid the risk of a decade behind bars.

In spite of the outrageous and reprehensible nature of the act, the case raises a number of disturbing questions about the use of civil rights laws today.

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