Wisconsin v. Mitchell (1993) raised the question of whether Wisconsin violated the U.S. Constitution by enhancing criminal sentences in cases where the victim was selected because of his or her race. This case exemplifies the clash between citizens’ rights to freedom of thought and expression and society’s interest in eliminating discrimination and hate crimes.
Todd Mitchell was sitting around with a group of young African American men and boys and discussing the beating of an African American boy in the movie Mississippi Burning. Mitchell asked his friends, “Do you all feel hyped up to move on some white people?” When the group saw a young white boy pass, Mitchell said “… there goes a white boy; go get him.” The group converged on the boy, beat him, and stole his tennis shoes. The beating left the boy in a coma for four days. Mitchell was arrested and ultimately convicted of aggravated battery. The maximum sentence on the battery charge was two years, but the maximum increased to seven years under a state hate crime statute. The Wisconsin statute enhanced criminal punishment whenever a crime was committed because of the victim’s race. Mitchell was sentenced to four years.
Mitchell appealed, arguing that the statute violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by punishing him for his offensive thoughts. He also argued that the statute violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution because, in order to prove that a defendant committed the crime because of a victim’s race, the state would have to introduce evidence of the defendant’s previous statements and associations. A person who knows that their words and associations might be used against them may be prevented from speaking and associating freely. If this “chilling” of the exercise of constitutional rights is the result of the statute, then the statute is said to be unconstitutionally overbroad. The Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed with Mitchell and overturned his sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, overturned the Wisconsin Supreme Court and held that Wisconsin’s statute did not violate the Constitution.
The First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the government from punishing people for offensive beliefs or thoughts. Mitchell argued that the state statute punished him for his thoughts because his maximum sentence for the beating would have been no more than two years if he had beaten the boy for any reason other than the victim’s race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or ancestry (Wis. Stat. 939.645(1)(b)). He argued that by focusing on his motive, the statute criminalized bigoted thoughts. The state of Wisconsin argued that the statute punished Todd’s conduct of beating the boy based on his race rather than his bigoted thought.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the state. The court acknowledged that expressive actions are protected under the First Amendment, but noted that when violence or other types of expressive actions cause harms that are distinct from the communicative nature of the act, then the actions are not protected by the First Amendment.
The court further reasoned that judges often consider a defendant’s motive in sentencing, a practice that is wholly constitutional. While a sentencing judge may not hold a defendant’s abstract beliefs or associations against him in sentencing, if those thoughts or associations tend to prove something more, such as a circumstance that aggravates the severity of the crime, then the sentencing court may take the beliefs or associations into consideration.
Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone in the employment setting because of the person’s race. The Supreme Court has found that act to be constitutional against claims that it violated the employer’s First Amendment rights. According to the court, Wisconsin’s hate crime act played a similar role and was likewise constitutional.
This role of antidiscrimination statutes is tied to their constitutionality. These statutes, according to the court, single out discriminatory behaviors because society believes that these actions tend to inflict significant societal harm. For example, crimes motivated by bias tend to encourage retaliation, cause significant emotional damage, and bring about unrest in the community.
The court in Mitchell also rejected the argument that the statute was overbroad. First, the First Amendment does not prohibit the government from using a person’s speech to establish the elements of a crime or to prove motive or intent. Second, the court found it unlikely that this statute would inhibit people’s speech or association. The argument was too speculative to support a holding that the statute was overbroad.
The First Amendment protects citizens’ rights to say and think what they wish. Although the right is not without exceptions, it is very broad. The government cannot prohibit thoughts, associations, and expressions just because they are unpopular. When a person commits a hate crime, they are typically violating a law that is already on the books, such as assault or vandalism. Rather than pursue and punish the suspect based on existing law, many jurisdictions have chosen to single out bias-inspired conduct for special treatment. Proponents might argue that society ought to clearly voice its abhorrence for racial intolerance. This argument would justify hate crime legislation through legal moralism; the law should and does act as society’s moral agent. Opponents might respond that singling out defendants for enhanced sentencing based on the majority’s moral beliefs violates core constitutional principles. Local, state, and federal government officials are left with the necessity of weighing a person’s right to speak an unpopular opinion against society’s interest in punishing discriminatory acts by private citizens.
- 42 U.S.C. 2000e-2(a)(1).
- Gerstenfeld, P., ed. Hate Crimes: Causes, Controls and Controversies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage,
- Hishon v, King & Spalding, 467 U.S. 69, 81 L.Ed. 2s 59, 104 S.Ct. 2229 (1984).
- A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377 (1992).
- Wisconsin v. Mitchell, 508 U.S. 476, 113 S.Ct. 2194, 124 L.Ed.2d 436 (1993).
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