Petitioner: State of Wisconsin
Respondent: Todd Mitchell
Petitioner's Claim: That a Wisconsin law that increased the penalty for racially motivated crimes was constitutional.
Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: James E. Doyle, Attorney General of Wisconsin
Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Lynn S. Adelman
Justices for the Court: Harry A. Blackmun, Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens, Clarence Thomas, Byron R. White
Justices Dissenting: None
Date of Decision: June 11, 1993
Decision: Wisconsin's law did not violate the First Amendment. Mitchell's conviction and increased penalty were constitutional.
Significance: The freedom to have racist thoughts does not give Americans the right to commit crimes for racist reasons.
The United States of America has been described as a melting pot where people of different races and religions happily combine to form one society. Reality, however, is not always this rosy. There is a lot of tension in the United States between people with different characteristics. For example, organizations like the Ku Klux Klan fight against Americans who are not white Christians. Women's rights groups often draw fire from men, and many people are criticized because of their religion.
Sometimes the tension results in hate crimes. A hate crime occurs when a criminal picks his victim based on the person's race, color, religion, sex, or other characteristic. To discourage hate crimes, many states have laws called penalty enhancement statutes. These laws increase the penalty for hate crimes. In Wisconsin v. Mitchell(1993), the U.S. Supreme Court had to decide whether penalty enhancement statutes violate the First Amendment by punishing people for their thoughts.
Todd Mitchell was one of many young black men and boys who gathered in an apartment in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on the evening of October 7, 1989. Several people in the group talked about a movie called "Mississippi Burning," especially a scene in which a white man beat a black boy who was praying.
After the discussion, the group went outside. Mitchell asked his friends, "Do you all feel hyped up to move on some white people?" When a white boy walked by the group, Mitchell said, "There goes a white boy; go get him." After Mitchell counted to three and pointed at the boy, the group attacked the boy, beat him severely, and stole his tennis shoes. Although he survived, the boy was in a coma for four days.
Wisconsin charged Mitchell with aggravated battery and a jury in Kenosha County found him guilty. Aggravated battery normally carried a maximum penalty of two years in prison. The state of Wisconsin, however, had a penalty enhancement statute. It increased the maximum penalty whenever a criminal picked his victim because of the person's "race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or ancestry." Using the penalty enhancement statute, the court sentenced Mitchell to four years in prison.
Mitchell appealed his conviction and sentence. He argued that the penalty enhancement statute violated the First Amendment freedom of speech. The First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging [limiting] the freedom of speech." States, including Wisconsin, must obey the First Amendment under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The freedom of speech is not limited to "speech." It also prevents the government from punishing people for their thoughts and beliefs.
Mitchell said increasing his penalty violated the First Amendment by punishing him for his "bigoted beliefs" about white people. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals rejected this argument, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed. It said Wisconsin's penalty enhancement statute violated the First Amendment by punishing offensive thoughts. Wisconsin took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
No freedom to beat
With a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Wisconsin. It held that the penalty enhancement statute did not violate the First Amendment. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said Americans cannot escape punishment for crimes by saying their violent conduct is a form of speech. "[A] physical assault is not, by any stretch of the imagination, expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment."
Justice Rehnquist agreed that Wisconsin's statute increased the penalty for a criminal with racist motives. Justice Rehnquist said this was different than punishing someone just for their thoughts and beliefs. For example, if the law said racist people get four years in jail for battery but non-racist people get only two years in jail, it would violate the First Amendment.
Wisconsin's law was different. It did not deal with a person's general thoughts. It increased the penalty when the motive for a specific crime was the victim's race or other characteristic. Justice Rehnquist said judges regularly consider the defendant's motive when determining a sentence. For example, in Barclay v. Florida, the Supreme Court said it was constitutional to consider a black defendant's desire to start a "race war" when sentencing him for murdering a white man.
Justice Rehnquist compared Wisconsin's penalty enhancement statute with laws prohibiting racial discrimination. Such laws make it illegal for employers to treat people differently in the workplace just because of their race, religion, sex, or other characteristics. The Supreme Court allows such laws because discrimination is an evil that must be stopped.
Similarly, said Justice Rehnquist, hate crimes are an evil that must be stopped. Hate crimes can lead to further violence, emotional distress, and unrest in a community. States are allowed to discourage hate crimes by punishing them more severely than regular crimes. Mitchell's four-year prison sentence, then, was constitutional.
Suggestions for further reading
Evans, J. Edward. Freedom of Speech. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, Inc., 1990.
Farish, Leah. The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech, Religion, and the Press. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.
"Hate Speech," Issues and Controversies on File, June 4, 1999.
King, David C. The Right to Speak Out. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1997.
Klinker, Philip A. The First Amendment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.
Pascoe, Elaine. Freedom of Expression: The Right to Speak Out in America. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1992.
Steele, Philip, Philip Skele, and Penny Clarke. Freedom of Speech? New York: Franklin Watts, 1997.
Zeinert, Karen. Free Speech: From Newspapers to Music Lyrics. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1995.
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