Supreme Court Upholds Wisconsin Hate-Crime Law Move Rejects Claim That Stiffer Sentences Violate Freedom of Expression

Article excerpt

9?H IN 1989, a group of young black men was lounging around an apartment building in Kenosha, Wis. "Mississippi Burning," a film portraying violence by Southern whites against blacks, was fresh on their minds. Suddenly, a young white boy walked by and Todd Mitchell, a leader of the black group, shouted: "There goes a white boy. Go get him!"

Get him they did. The group beat the youngster within an inch of his life. Mr. Mitchell was convicted of aggravated battery, which normally carries a maximum sentence of two years in jail. But his sentence was increased to four years under Wisconsin's new hate-crime statute.

Mitchell's lawyers appealed the stiffer sentence and Wisconsin's Supreme Court agreed that the sentence violated his constitutional right to freedom of expression. But on Friday, the United States Supreme Court unanimously decided to reinstate Mitchell's tougher sentence and, in the process, to uphold the constitutionality of Wisconsin's hate-crimes law.

"It's an important decision," says Geoffrey Stone, a University of Chicago constitutional scholar. "It authorizes states to adopt legislation of this sort, which has been previously thought to be constitutionally suspect."

More than 20 states - including California, Florida, and Vermont - have laws providing enhanced penalties for hate crimes. Other states, including Louisiana and Mississippi, have debated similar statutes. Last year, federal hate-crime legislation passed the House of Representatives but was defeated in the Senate.

Defense attorneys charge that the laws infringe upon First Amendment rights of criminal defendants. But others say they are necessary to combat a wave of bias-related attacks - 4,558 in 1991 alone, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"These crimes have a ripple effect on society," says Steve Freeman, legal-affairs director for New York's Anti-Defamation League. …