The law comes into play when someone commits a crime against another due to their status as a member of a protected class (such as a particular race, religion, and now including sexual orientation). The crimes include physical assault, damage to property, bullying, harassment, verbal abuse or insults, or offensive graffiti or letters. Note that all of these are already crimes, regardless of motive. The law attempts to punish the motive of the crime additionally to the crime itself.
But note that the motive, in this case, is prejudice against a specific class of people. While bigotry is the disease of the ignorant, we all have a right to hold biases as we wish. For example, I feel that Fred Phelps and other members of Westboro Baptist Church are some of the most hateful, ignorant people on the planet, but I value our right to free speech, which has to include their right to hateful, wicked speech. As long as no crime is committed, everyone has a right to their own thoughts, and expression fo those beliefs.
If a crime has been committed due to bigotry, then this crime should of course be prosecuted. Attorneys are free to introduce prejudice as a motive to a crime, without hate crime laws. But to increase the punishment for a crime because of this prejudice criminalizes freedom of speech and expression.
In some special cases, our speech can be restricted. On argument made for hate crime legislation is that a hate crime is meant to intimidate a class of people, making it a more heinous crime than it would be in other circumstances. While intimidation may be considered a more heinous motive, I can intimidate without appealing to a class of people protected by hate crime laws. I could physically assault a lawyer, and make it clear that I will continue to attack lawyers, in order to intimidate. Intimidation should be prosecuted equally, regardless of whether hate crime laws are applicable ore not.
But what if hate crime legislation provides practical benefits, even if the logic behind them is flawed? Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, puts it this way:
"Too many in our community have been devastated by hate violence," Solmonese said in a statement. "We now can begin the important steps to erasing hate in our country."But is hate crime legislation really reducing hate? The data is inconclusive, at best. In 2006, 7,722 hate-crime incidents were reported to the FBI -- an 8 percent increase from 2005. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of what they define as "hate groups" has increased by 56% since 2000. Of course this data isn't strong enough to definitively say that actual hate crimes have increased, but it certainly isn't clear that hate crime legislation has had a positive effect.
To me, Solmonese's statement is naïve. Passing legislation has no chance of erasing, or even significantly reducing the number of hateful, ignorant people in this country. The only way to reduce hate is to make hate less acceptable. I don't know how we can effectively accomplish this. I suspect that improved education would help, as well as being open and outspoken against prejudice and bigotry. But hate crime legislation isn't the answer.