What we think of as hate crime legislation began with the Civil Rights Act of 1968. It said, in part, that anyone who injures, intimidates, or attempts to do either to another based on their race, color, religion or national origin “shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.” It goes on to detail assaults, attempted assaults, threats, sexual abuse, kidnapping and murder as offenses with special consequences when motivated by bias — those consequences ranging from something as small as a fine to as significant as a death sentence.

Such laws did not exist throughout much of America’s history of racial terrorism, intimidation and crime; these provisions, written into the Civil Rights Act, did not exist until 13 years after the murder of Emmett Till. They could possibly play a part if charges are brought in the death of Trayvon Martin, however.

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Notably, the legislation does specify that free speech and peaceful assembly are still protected by the Constitution, but not to the point that they aid or invite another to commit an act of violence upon someone.

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Despite the fact that the provisions set forth in legislation, like the Civil Rights Act, define the protection and limits of free speech, critics of hate crime laws say they put limitations on civil liberties.

Comedian Bill Maher said on his show that they “give liberals a bad name.”

On a recent segment of his Real Time show on HBO he focused on the killing of Trayvon Martin. Maher said, “Some people think that a hate crime is a thought crime and this shouldn’t be some separate category; a crime is a crime. It’s an action. Is that what you guys believe? That’s what I believe.”

To the contrary, in 1993, The Supreme Court unanimously found that penalty-enhancement hate crime statutes do not conflict with free speech rights. In Wisconsin v. Mitchell, they decided that hate crime laws do not punish the exercising of freedom of expression, but allow rather for courts to consider motive when sentencing a criminal.According to a 2006 survey by the Anti-Defamation League, Connecticut, D.C., Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Washington are the 17 states with particularly inclusive hate crime laws.

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They cover crimes based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and disability. States like Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, Utah and Wyoming have hate crime laws but none that account for crimes committed as a result of racial, religious or ethnic bias.

Civil rights-era hate crime legislation only covered possible victims who were participating in protected activities like voting. The Matthew Shepard Act reversed this in 2009, defining hate crimes more liberally and adding gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability to the definition.

According to data compiled by the FBI in 2010, however, 48.2 percent of hate crimes reported were connected to racial bias. Religion and sexual orientation were the second and third most frequent motives for a hate crime.

In the case of Trayvon Martin, his shooter, George Zimmerman, is heard in a 911 recording mumbling what reports have speculated to be a racial slur. Drexel University law professor Donald Tibbs said to the Associated Press, “It sounds pretty obvious to me. If that was a racial epithet that preceded the attack on Trayvon Martin, we definitely have a hate crime.”

The state of Florida, where Trayvon Martin was killed, covers every protected class of people except by gender. At the time of the survey, Florida also had the distinction of being one of 35 states that did not provide training for law enforcement personnel to deal with hate crimes, possibly another impediment to a case that the Martin family said was botched since Day One.

Follow Donovan X. Ramsey on Twitter at @idxr