On July 3, 2006, Lewiston, Maine resident Brent Matthews threw a pig's head as "a joke" into the town's only mosque, frequented primarily by Somali refugees, during evening services. Because of Matthews' "joke," members of the mosque were required by Islamic law to clean the desecrated area seven times, attendance at the mosque decreased, and some members said they feared physical harm. Unfortunately for Matthews, Maine is one of eight states that has given its Attorney General the authority to seek a civil remedy for a violation of a citizen's civil rights, which can be pursued concurrently or exclusively of criminal charges. Two weeks after the incident, Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe announced that his office had filed a civil action against Matthews under the Maine Civil Rights Act, asking the court to order Matthews not to have any contact with the mosque or its members, and to obey the Maine Civil Rights Act. In a press release announcing Matthews' prosecution, Attorney General Rowe opined that "[a]s a civil society and one governed by the rule of law, it is our obligation to take the legal steps necessary to make sure that Maine people who practice Islam and people of all other faiths feel completely free and safe to worship without violent interference from others." In contrast to the government's account of the event, Matthews claimed in his defense that he spoke with a member of the Lewiston Police Department before his "joke" and asked what charges he could face. Matthews also claimed that his joke was not directed at the mosque because he did not know there was one in that building and, somewhat inconsistently, that he didn't know pork products were offensive to Muslims. Not buying Matthews' claims, the court granted the government a preliminary injunction against Matthews and ordered him to stay away from the mosque. The FBI decided not to file federal charges shortly thereafter. By all accounts, Brent Matthews complied with the terms of the injunction, learned his lesson, and moved on with his life. Mosque members said that they forgave Matthews for his actions and considered it an isolated event. But, on April 21, 2007, Matthews drove to the parking lot of a local store, called 911, and threatened to kill himself. Officers tried to speak to Matthews, but shortly after their arrival Matthews shot and killed himself, leaving no note or explanation behind-a troubling end to a troubled life. Brent Matthews' story provides a vivid illustration of what a state attorney general can do if given the authority to seek civil remedies against those who commit hate crimes. In these states, attorneys general are able to move swiftly and craft orders that enjoin and prohibit hateful activities with great specificity. However, allowing the government to enjoin an individual from interacting with certain people, saying certain things, and going certain places without the rigor of a criminal trial raises serious constitutional questions.
The Role of the State Attorney General in Preventing and Punishing Hate Crimes Through Civil Prosecution: Positive Experiences and Possible First Amendment Potholes,
Me. L. Rev.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.mainelaw.maine.edu/mlr/vol61/iss2/7