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A man who wore a Ku Klux Klan hood instead of a mask while grocery shopping amid the coronavirus pandemic will not face charges, the San Diego County Sheriff's Department said Monday.
The man was pictured wearing the hood at a Vons store in Santee, California, on May 2.
The images went viral, and following public outrage on social media, the sheriff's department released a statement on May 4 that they would be investigating the incident.
On Monday, Sheriff William D. Gore said that after reviewing the evidence, police could not find sufficient evidence to charge the individual with a crime, citing the man's right to free speech.
"The U.S. Supreme Court has said that '[s]peech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express the thought that we hate,'" the sheriff said in Monday's statement.
The department confirmed that they "interrogated" the hood-wearer, but did not publicly identify the man and declined to provide any information about him to BuzzFeed News.
"The man expressed frustration with the coronavirus and having people tell him what he can and cannot do. He said that wearing the hood was not intended to be a racial statement. In summary, he said, 'It was a mask and it was stupid.'"
Santee, where the photos were taken, has a history of racially motivated violence dating back decades, earning the region the monikers "Klantee" and "Santucky." The city, located approximately 18 miles from San Diego with a population of roughly 60,000 people, hired an image consultant in August in an attempt to "rebrand" the area.
One of the most high-profile incidents of racially motivated violence in the area occurred in 1998, when a group of white men attacked a black Marine at a Memorial Day party, leaving the 21-year-old with a broken neck and paralyzed for life. According to witnesses, the five men shouted slurs and "white power" as they carried out the assault. (The instigator, who admitted the attack was motivated by race, was sentenced to nine years in prison. The other four were sentenced to one year of jail time and five years of probation.)
The San Diego County Sheriff's Department said that the US Attorney's Office and the San Diego County District Attorney's Office agreed that there was insufficient evidence to charge the individual in the hood with a crime.
"That said, this incident should serve as a reminder for anyone contemplating wearing or displaying items so closely associated with hate and human suffering that our society does not hold in high regard those who do so," the sheriff's department said.