Is it Now Illegal to Say ‘Illegal’ in New York City?

Claim

In September 2019, New York City made it illegal to call anyone "illegal" or an "illegal alien," imposing a $250,000 fine for offenders.

Rating

Decontextualized

Reporting

In late September and early October 2019, a number of posts on social media claimed that New York City had made it illegal to call anyone “illegal” or an “illegal alien.”

A September 30 2019 video post by Tim Pool was titled “NYC Announced $250,000 Fine For Calling Someone ‘Illegal Alien'”:

Commenters railed against the “thought police” and (incorrectly) referenced the First Amendment:

That’s completely against everything the 1st Amendment is about. We should be able to say whatever the fuck what we want…period. If they can control speech, they can control your thoughts

In some instances, the claim was described as “a new law.” On October 1 2019, the Facebook page “ForAmerica,” which often traffics in disinformation, shared a link to an article with a similarly misleading headline, “NYC Makes It Illegal to Call Someone an ‘Illegal Alien,'” providing an excellent object lesson in willfully misrepresenting the issue:

 

Posts such as these are often shared by readers who do not click through to the text of the article. This left many with the extremely inaccurate impression that a new law had been passed so that so much as saying the word “illegal” in any context would rack up a massive fine.

The attached article — which has since been updated and clarified — began by claiming:

New York City declared on [September 26 2019] that using the term “illegal alien” in a derogatory way is illegal and punishable by a fine of up to $250,000.

The city’s Commission on Human Rights issued new legal enforcement guidance stating that “the use of the term ‘illegal alien,’ among others, when used with the intent to demean, humiliate, or harass a person, is illegal under the law.”

Also outlawed under the guidelines are “harassing and discriminating against someone for their use of another language or their limited English proficiency, and threatening to call ICE on a person based on a discriminatory motive.”

As of October 2 2019, the article included a since-removed September 26 2019 post (archived here) sent by the official @NYCgov account on Twitter. Due to its deletion or removal, only the text of the tweet remained:

BREAKING:
New York City has made it illegal to threaten to call ICE based on a discriminatory motive or to tell someone “go back to your country.” Hate has no place here. pic.twitter.com/8PaIozjQty
— City of New York (@nycgov) September 26, 2019

Archived versions of the tweet showed that in addition to the allowable 280 characters on Twitter, the account attached a statement issued by the New York City Commission on Human Rights:

View post on imgur.com

 

Another version of the statement was available [PDF] on NYC.gov, New York City’s official website. The first of three pages was visible in the original tweet, and the included title and text portion said:

NYC COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS ANNOUNCES NEW LEGAL ENFORCEMENT GUIDANCE AND ACTIONS AGAINST DISCRIMINATION BASED ON IMMIGRATION STATUS AND NATIONAL ORIGIN

NEW YORK –The NYC Commission on Human Rights released today new legal enforcement guidance that defines discrimination on the basis of perceived or actual immigration status and national origin under the New York City Human Rights Law in public accommodations, employment, and housing. The guidance states that the use of the term “illegal alien,” among others, when used with intent to demean, humiliate, or harass a person, is illegal under the law. Further, the guidance stipulates that harassing or discriminating against someone for their use of another language or their limited English proficiency, and threatening to call ICE on a person based on a discriminatory motive, are considered to be in violation of the law. Fines of up to $250,000 can be assessed for each act of willful discrimination, and damages are available to complainants.

In the excerpt above, we emphasized context that was almost always left out of  posts on social media about the legal enforcement guidelines. In the first sentence of the statement, the Commission on Human Rights made it clear that the guidance applied only to public accommodations, employment, and housing.

The commission also noted that discrimination on the basis of national origin or immigration status has been illegal for decades in New York City as of 2019. The statement went on to provide examples of harassment under the scope of the law:

Discrimination on the basis of immigration status and national origin have been illegal in New York City for decades. The guidance reaffirms these protections, as well as provides specific examples of discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and employment.

[…]

Along with the release of the guidance, the Commission is announcing that it is currently investigating four discrimination cases in which ICE was used as a threat to intimidate or harass a tenant in housing, one of which was recently reported on in the Wall Street Journal after a finding of discrimination and recommendation from an administrative judge.

It continued by citing landlord refusal to repair unlivable units, reducing or withholding wages, and harassment of customers in public spaces as circumstances that fell under its purview. Further examples were provided to clarify the guidance:

In addition to employment and housing, the above protections extend to all users of public accommodations, including businesses such as restaurants, fitness clubs, stores, and nightclubs, and other public spaces, like parks, libraries, healthcare providers, and cultural institutions.

Near the end of the statement, the commission explained its reasoning in issuing the guidance:

“Across the country we have seen forced labor, extortion, wage theft, and other lawless action directed at immigrant communities, and today we are expressing our commitment to confront, address, and prevent these abuses in our city. NYC has benefitted from a history rich with contributions from immigrant communities. We honor that history by making clear that abuse of any person based on their actual or perceived immigration status will not be tolerated here,” said Cathy Albisa, Executive Director of the National Economic & Social Rights Initiative and Commissioner for the New York City Commission on Human Rights.

According to widely-shared Facebook posts, New York City passed a “new law” making it “illegal” to call someone “illegal” or an “illegal alien,” with fines for violations ranging up to $250,000. In actuality, the New York City Commission on Human Rights issued a statement on September 26 2019 reiterating that “discrimination on the basis of immigration status and national origin have been illegal in New York City for decades.” New York City’s Human Rights Commission noted that the toxicity of the national discourse led the City to make “clear that abuse of any person based on their actual or perceived immigration status will not be tolerated here.”

No “new law” was passed, and the guidance in question only applied to landlords, employers, and business owners legally prohibited from discriminating against the public — none of it was novel, and everyday citizens of New York City would not be fined $250,000 for using the language cited in the statement.

Update 10/7/2019, 9:37am: Corrected “allowable 140 characters on Twitter” to “allowable 280 characters on Twitter.” We regret the error. –bb

Update 10/21/2019, 9:09am: Text now reflects that Pluralist has updated their story to clarify the issue. -bb