In recent years, there has been renewed attention to crimes that are committed as a result of an individual’s race, religion, or perceived sexual orientation. This concern was heightened after the brutal murders of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., the first for his sexual orientation and the second for his race. 

Congress widened the Civil Rights Act of 1968 to include other categories of hate crimes

In the Civil Rights Act of 1968, Congress had already provided for federal investigation and prosecution on crimes involving race, color, religion or national origin.  In 2009, Congress widened this law with the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.  Consistent with the Supreme Court decision in Wisconsin v. Mitchell (1993), the law was designed to provide enhanced penalties in hate crimes also involving “gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability” that was in or affected interstate or foreign commerce.  Because of First Amendment concerns, the law does not penalize speech per se unless the speech is intended to incite violence.

There have been a number of successful prosecutions under the law.

John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2017.

Send Feedback on this article