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McCarthy: ‘Just because something is offensive does not make it illegal’

Montgomery County state's attorney weighs in amid protests and racist vandalism — including a swastika in a middle school bathroom — that have appeared since Donald Trump's election.

WASHINGTON — As police investigate who scrawled “Trump nation whites only” on a sign outside a Silver Spring church, and who drew a swastika in a Bethesda middle school bathroom, Montgomery County’s state’s attorney says there’s a difference between vandalism and free speech.

“I think as Americans, we recognize that there are tremendously broad free speech protections that exist in the United States,” said John McCarthy. “Just because something is offensive does not make it illegal.”

McCarthy said he has heard anecdotes from around the region of gloating, taunting comments aimed at minorities, often mentioned in conjunction with the election of Donald Trump.

“These kinds of demonstrated activities are instances where we as a community have opportunities to educate people on issues of tolerance, particularly with our kids in schools,” said McCarthy.

“Words are protected,” said McCarthy. “However, actions are governed by criminal law.”

If taunts lead to a physical confrontation, McCarthy said, the ramifications are different.

“Physical contact with another individual clearly would be a battery, and would be prosecutable,” said McCarthy.

In addition, threats of physical violence can constitute assault, McCarthy said.

On Saturday night, a banner outside the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Silver Spring was slashed, and the words “Trump nation whites only,” were written on the back. No arrests have been made in connection with the vandalism.

Friday, a swastika was found on the wall of a boys’ bathroom at Westland Middle School in Bethesda. The school principal sent parents a letter, saying staff would be addressing the issue with students this week.

McCarthy said that law enforcement and the public school system began working together last year to minimize bullying among students, and that the agencies will continue to try to raise awareness.

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