Global Freedom of Expression

Wisconsin v. Mitchell

Closed Mixed Outcome

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Non-verbal Expression
  • Date of Decision
    June 11, 1993
  • Outcome
    Decision - Procedural Outcome, Reversed Lower Court, Decision Outcome (Disposition/Ruling), Law or Action Upheld
  • Case Number
    508 U.S. 476
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Supreme (court of final appeal)
  • Type of Law
    Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Hate Speech
  • Tags

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The Supreme Court unanimously upheld a conviction under a Wisconsin statute that allowed for enhanced sentences for racially motivated crimes. After leading an assault by black youths on a white boy after stating that he wanted to “move on some white people,” Todd Mitchell was convicted of aggravated battery and given an enhanced sentence for intentionally selecting the victim because of his race; Mitchell appealed the sentence, arguing that the statute punished his freedom of thought guaranteed by the First Amendment. The Court rejected this argument, finding that the statute was sufficiently narrow as it only affected sentencing of an already-criminal act and that enhanced sentences are lawful because they punish the perpetrator for criminal activity that is harmful to victim communities rather than the discriminatory thoughts that motivate that activity. 


The Respondent Todd Mitchell was convicted of aggravated battery after he and a group intentionally singled out a white boy, beat him severely, and stole his tennis shoes. Aggravated battery under Wisconsin law normally carries a maximum sentence of two years but because Mitchell intentionally selected his victim based on his race this maximum sentence was increased to seven years. The Circuit Court sentenced Mitchell to four years imprisonment.

Mitchell sought post conviction relief in the Circuit Court which was denied. He then appealed to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals alleging that the enhanced sentence violated his First Amendment rights. The Court of Appeals rejected the case and Mitchell appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin reversed and held that the sentence enhancement did violate Mitchell’s First Amendment rights because it punished offensive thoughts, and the statute was overbroad and therefore unconstitutional. This was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which reversed the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Decision Overview

Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the unanimous opinion of the Court reversing the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The Court noted that although the Supreme Court of Wisconsin held the statute was invalid for violating the First Amendment by punishing a discriminatory motive, courts have long taken motive into consideration in the punishment of crimes. Judges have meted out lower sentences for those acting with good motives and higher sentences for those acting with bad motives. The Court said this differs from taking someone’s abstract beliefs into account on sentencing which is prohibited. The Court also noted that it had upheld the constitutionality of federal and state laws which bar discrimination based on someones race or gender, for example the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or nationality. “Motive plays the same role under the Wisconsin statute” as under Federal and state anti-discrimination laws, Chief Justice Rhenquist said. Further, the Court said, the state has a legitimate reason for singling out bias-inspired conduct for enhanced sentencing: “bias-motivated crimes are more likely to provoke retaliatory crimes, inflict distinct emotional harms on their victims and incite community unrest.” Pg. *488.

Finally, the Court considered Mitchell’s argument that the statute was unconstitutionally overbroad because it had a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech by allowing evidence of Mitchell’s prior speech or associations to be used to prove he intentionally selected his victim. The Supreme Court did not agree, finding that the First Amendment “does not prohibit the evidentiary use of speech to establish the elements of a crime or to prove notice or intent.” Pg. *489. Evidence of prior crimes or prior motives is routinely utilized in criminal convictions, subject to the limitations of the rules of evidence.

For these reasons, the Supreme Court reversed the Wisconsin Supreme Court and upheld the state statute.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Mixed Outcome

This case has a mixed outcome because on the one hand, the Court emphasized that abstract beliefs however obnoxious cannot form the basis for a conviction. However, if those beliefs become a motive for committing a crime, then they may be considered by the Court. The Court stressed the distinction between this case and those holding statutes invalid for punishing ‘fighting words’ that are racially motivated because the latter are directed at expression and therefore infringe on first amendment rights (see R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul. whereas the Wisconsin statute is directed at conduct.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

This landmark ruling examined the fundamental fairness of hate-crime legislation and its holding that carefully crafted hate-crime laws don’t infringe on the free exercise of speech resolved the major constitutional questions on the matter. The decision accelerated the introduction of similar laws nationwide with only five states having failed to pass such laws as yet.

The decision was cited in:

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