Idaho Prosecutor Refuses Hate Crime Charges in Racial Slur Incident at NCAA Tournament


In a turn of events that have left many shocked and dismayed, a prosecutor in northern Idaho has opted not to pursue hate crime charges against an 18-year-old who is reported to have verbally assaulted members of the Utah women’s basketball team with a racist slur during the course of the NCAA Tournament.

The prosecutor’s decision, announced on Monday, puts to rest weeks of speculation regarding the legal fate of the accused. The deputy attorney for the city of Coeur d’Alene highlighted in a formal charging decision document that although the racial slur used was unquestionably “detestable” and “incredibly offensive,” there existed no evidence to suggest that the accused harbored any intentions of causing physical harm to the women or damaging their property. As a result, the behavior falls under the protection of the First Amendment and cannot be prosecuted under Idaho’s malicious harassment law, stated Ryan Hunter, the city’s deputy attorney.

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The incident in question unfolded in March this year, in the city of Coeur d’Alene. The University of Utah basketball team was staying at a local hotel as they prepared to compete in the NCAA Tournament in Spokane, Washington, located a short distance away. By their account, a truck pulled up alongside the team members as they walked from their hotel to a restaurant, and the driver yelled a racial slur at the group. In an alleged repeat offense, following their dinner, the same driver reportedly returned, this time accompanied by others, intimidating the players by revving their engines and yelling at them once again.

Utah coach Lynne Roberts witnessed the blatant intimidation and expressed distress, noting that the encounters had been alarming enough to cause her team concern for their safety. Furthermore, she recounts, “We had several instances of some kind of racial hate crimes toward our program and (it was) incredibly upsetting for all of us,” Roberts said. “In our world, in athletics and in university settings, it’s shocking. There’s so much diversity on a college campus and so you’re just not exposed to that very often.”

University of Utah officials, however, declined to comment about the prosecutor’s decision on Wednesday.

During the investigation, police interviewed nearly 24 witnesses and scrutinized countless hours of surveillance footage. The descriptions given by several credible witnesses regarding the vehicle and the individual who shouted the slur varied substantially, and also, the audio on the surveillance tapes fell short of capturing any yelling.

Ultimately, they were able to identify the occupants of a silver passenger vehicle involved in the second encounter, one of whom, an 18-year-old high school student, confessed to the allegations. As per Hunter, the individual in question admitted to shouting a racial slur at the group and making an obscene statement for the purpose of humor.

While the decision not to press charges has been met with outrage, the prosecutor’s office emphasized that their ability to prosecute is contingent on the specifics of the situation and the existing legal framework. Existing Idaho law defines racial harassment as criminal only when it is executed with an intention to threaten or to cause physical harm to a person or their property, a condition not satisfied in this case.

Under this legal precedent set down by Idaho, coupled with the First Amendment’s protection of even hateful or offensive speech, the situation simply does not warrant criminal prosecution.

Aaron Terr, the public advocacy director of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which is committed to protecting freedom of speech and thought, stated, “While that means we sometimes have to hear speech we loathe, it’s an important principle because the only alternative is for the government to decide when speech is too offensive. That’s a subjective judgment, and it would open the door to the government arbitrarily suppressing views it doesn’t like.”

However, as Terr points out, there do exist specific and narrowly defined exceptions to the broad protections offered by the First Amendment. These include the exclusion of true threats or statements expressing serious intentions to cause physical harm or incite immediate unlawful action. Yet, as per his judgement, neither of these exceptions applies in this case.

This incident serves as a stark, sobering reminder of the complexities that face the legal system when it comes to protecting individuals’ rights, balancing the freedom of speech, and addressing offensive behavior, especially in the divisive arena of hate crimes.