The case of Wisconsin v. Mitchell is significant because it helped to pave the way for hate crime laws in the United States.
In this case, Todd Mitchell was a young African American man living in Kenosha, WI in 1989. He and some of his friends had been talking about the movie Mississippi Burning and were angry about a scene in which white men had beaten a black youth. When they saw a white youth walk by, Mitchell suggested that they beat him since he was white. They did so and the youth was badly hurt. Mitchell was convicted of this crime and was given a more severe sentence because the victim had been chosen on the basis of his race.
Mitchell appealed, arguing that he was being punished for his beliefs and opinions. This was, he argued, a violation of his First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court disagreed in a unanimous decision. It said that Mitchell was being punished for his actions and that the extra punishment was based on the idea that such crimes were more damaging to society than regular crimes. Because the potential ramifications of a hate crime are greater, the Court said, it is acceptable to punish such a crime more harshly. This case established the precedent that states may make laws that punish hate crimes more severely than similar crimes that are not motivated by racial or other hatred.