Hate crimes are offenses that are committed because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation of another individual or group of individuals. The rate of crimes involving hate-related attacks on minorities, especially African Americans and Jews, in the 1980s prompted many states to pass hate crime legislation. Critics of hate crime statutes argue that adding extra penalties to a crime based upon the offender’s motive or prejudicial statements is an unconstitutional abridgment of free expression.
On June 22, 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court decided its first case dealing with hate crime laws in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 501 U.S. 1204 (1991). In that case, the prosecution charged someone with violating St. Paul’s “Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance” after he burned a cross in the yard of an African-American family. The Minnesota Supreme Court had upheld the ordinance on the grounds that it reached only “fighting words,” a category of speech that is not considered free speech, like yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater. The Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot regulate certain types of fighting words and leave other types of fighting words free from criminal liability.
Based on the Court’s decision, many states reviewed the constitutionality of their own hate crime laws. Some statutes were found, indeed, to have punished the offender’s motivation for a criminal act. By punishing someone’s motivation, the state is actually prohibiting bigoted thought —not the criminal act itself. Various state courts found that, since the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment protects speech and thought, even when that speech or thought is offensive, any law criminalizing thought should be rendered unconstitutional.
Proponents of hate crime laws have attempted to compare the need for hate crime laws with the need for laws against discrimination. On the other hand, some have noted that civil rights laws target discriminatory behavior, not the prejudice behind the behavior.
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