Design Event at Suffolk University Law School Targets Hate Crimes

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BOSTON — From swastikas sprayed on synagogues to the shooting of an Indo-Asian by a Kansas man screaming, “Get out of my country,” hate crimes have spiked in the last several months. A diverse group of designers, advocates, attorneys, academics, and digital experts gathered at Suffolk University Law School in March to try to do something about this alarming issue.

Sparked by an idea from a former civil rights litigator, the “Hate Crimes Design Event” was spearheaded by the recently established American Bar Association (ABA) Center for Innovation, with financial support from Cisco Systems. The goal of the event was to lay the foundation for an app or a mobile-friendly website to help victims of hate crimes and aid organizations that work with those victims.

Participants, who included Suffolk University Law School Dean Andrew Perlman, powered through a full day of strategizing. “Many of us are concerned about the problem of hate crimes and bias incidents,” said Perlman, chair of the Center for Innovation’s governing council. “But the public often does not have an easy way to find relevant resources. Technology and innovative methods can be used to make those resources easier to find and use.”

The concept of coming up with a digital response to hate crimes first came from Nicole Bradick, a former civil rights attorney, based in Portland, Maine, who is now the chief strategy officer of CuroLegal, a software development company for the legal industry. Bradick said technology can help clarify the scope and scale of hate crimes across the country, and assist in more effective responses. Trying to make legal information about hate crimes more accessible was the design challenge the group faced, she said. “The goal is to have one place that walks the victim through the process.”

Mark Chandler, GC of Cisco Systems

The workshop brought together Curo designers, representatives from the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, the Council of American-Islamic Relations, the Anti-Defamation League and other advocacy groups. All brought a slightly different perspective to the event.

In his opening comments to the group, Mark Chandler, Cisco’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel, noted that the company had always emphasized “toleration and celebration of differences” and lauded the ABA for taking a leadership role in addressing hate crime. Historically, the legal profession has often kept the law too complicated for the general public, he said. “We’ve built barriers instead of bridges for reasons that might have made sense at the time,” Chandler explained. “Today, we’re taking a step in the right direction.”

Dean Perlman agreed. “Hate crimes are complex because they differ state by state and at the federal level,” he said. “Just because someone did something offensive doesn’t legally make it a hate crime. It can be an intimidating process for folks to unwind that.”

The event began with intense discussions on approach. Would an app or website be educational or action-oriented? Would it be directed at individuals or community groups? How could one app cover federal, state and municipal law? And should victims be directed to law enforcement when many are reluctant to trust the police?

Participants discuss fighting hate crimes with technology at the “Hate Crimes Design Event” at Suffolk University Law School.

In the afternoon, the meeting broke into small groups that drilled down into specifics for landing pages, flow charts, scripts, scenarios and resource lists. The process was tough, requiring consideration of technical, logistical, legal and ethical questions at nearly every step.

The group persisted throughout the afternoon and by the early evening had worked out the broad outlines of a digital game plan. Much more remains to be done, but event facilitator Margaret Hagan, director of the Stanford Legal Design Lab, considered the progress made at the workshop to be a good day’s work for a centuries-old problem.

“I’m interested in how lawyers can make their expertise relevant to people who need it, and I think this is a prime example of a huge need that is unfortunately growing,” Hagan said.

The post was written by Prof. Gabe Teninbaum, Director of the Institute on Law Practice Technology & Innovation at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.