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Hate Crime

Do Hate-crime Laws Restrict First Amendment Rights?

The U.S. Supreme Court's upholding of the state "hate-crime" law in Wisconsin v. Mitchell, 508 U.S. 476, 113 S. Ct. 2194, 124 L. Ed. 2d 436 (1993), has not stopped some legal commentators from arguing that such laws violate the FIRST AMENDMENT of the U.S. Constitution. Though these critics generally admit that hate crimes are on the rise, they believe that laws that increase the severity of punishment on the basis of the motives of the perpetrator create a dangerous precedent for government interference with freedom of expression and thought. Defenders of hate-crime laws reject these fears, claiming that the laws deal with criminal conduct and are meant to send a message that discrimination will not be tolerated.

Critics of the laws have articulated a number of reasons for their opposition, some constitutional, some practical. The foremost concern is that hate-crime laws violate a person's right to freedom of thought. These statutes enhance the penalties for conduct already punished under state law when the perpetrator is motivated by a type of bigotry the legislature finds offensive. Therefore, if a rich man assaults a HOMELESS PERSON because he hates the poor, the rich man can be charged only with assault, because the legislature has not specifically found bigotry against the poor to be offensive. However, if a man assaults an African American because he hates persons of that race, he can be charged with assault and intimidation, which carries a more severe penalty, or his sentence for assault can be increased, because the legislature has penalized a racially discriminatory motive. For the critics of hate-crime laws, this result reveals that the legislature is regulating the defendant's thoughts, in violation of the First Amendment.

Critics also charge that the focus on motive distorts the traditional rules of CRIMINAL LAW. In the past, criminal law was interested in a defendant's mental state only to the extent that it would reveal whether the defendant had engaged in deliberate conduct. As a general rule, the motive of a crime has never been considered an element that must be proved at trial. Whether a person robbed a bank to buy food for a family or to pay back a gambling debt is considered irrelevant. The key state-of-mind question is whether the person intended to rob the bank.

Some critics also ask what good the additional penalty will do for persons convicted of hate crimes. If a person is filled with prejudices, extra time spent in prison is not likely to help eradicate those beliefs; it may, in fact, reinforce them. These critics do not believe that hate-crime laws seek to deter criminal activity. They feel that instead such laws appear to seek retribution for acts of violence motivated by racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. The critics contend the retribution model is not compatible with the modern goals of the criminal and penal systems.

Another criticism is that hate-crime laws do not address deeper forces within society that create prejudice. Some social psychologists believe that prejudice and the behavior that may accompany it are caused by a combination of social, economic, and psychological conflicts. Adding more punishment for those who act on their prejudice may give the community the illusion it is dealing with the problem, but, in fact, hate-crime laws do little to help change thought and behavior.

Defenders of hate-crime laws reject the idea that they are taking away anyone's First Amendment rights. They note that in Mitchell the Supreme Court rejected as "too speculative a hypothesis" the "chilling effect" argument, which maintains that these laws chill, or inhibit, free thought and speech. The Court also cited precedent that permitted the "evidentiary use of speech to establish the elements of a crime or to prove motive or intent." This means that persons are free to express their ideas, no matter how repugnant, but when they engage in unlawful conduct based on these beliefs, they surrender their First Amendment rights.

Defenders also believe that hate-crime laws, like other criminal laws, are aimed at preventing harmful acts. The focus is not on stifling disagreeable and prejudicial beliefs or biases, but on preventing the particularly harmful effects of hate crimes. Even critics of the laws admit that hate-crime violence is often brutal and severe. Defenders argue that increasing the penalties for this type of behavior is therefore justified.

Supporters of hate-crime laws point out, as did the Supreme Court in Mitchell, that most of the statutes use the same language as title VII of the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e et seq.). Why, they ask, is it acceptable to penalize employment discrimination that is based on racism and bigotry, but not criminal acts based on similar biases? The courts have long upheld federal and state discrimination laws as acceptable methods of penalizing conduct and promoting nondiscriminatory practices. Intentional employment discrimination requires a person to communicate his or her bias. Supporters conclude that once a person verbalizes a prejudice and acts on it, the state is free to regulate that conduct.

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