Home » Articles » Topic » Laws and Proposed Laws » Laws and Proposed Laws, 2008 to present » Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (2009)

Written by John R. Vile, published on January 1, 2017 , last updated on February 18, 2024

Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (2009)

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, 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. In this image mourners hold programs with the image of Matthew Shepard during a "Thanksgiving and Remembrance of Matthew Shepard" service at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, Friday, Oct. 26, 2018. The ashes of Matthew Shepard, whose brutal murder in the 1990s became a rallying cry for the gay rights movement, will be laid to rest in Washington National Cathedral. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, used with permission from the Associated Press)

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.

 

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