AUWCL Hosts “Rise Against Hate” to Mark 10th Anniversary of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act

Feb. 3, 2020

Judy Shepard speaks at "Rise Against Hate."
Judy Shepard speaks at "Rise Against Hate."

On Jan. 31, 2020, American University Washington College of Law welcomed Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard and president of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, to campus for “Rise Against Hate” to mark the 10th Anniversary of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

The event—presented by the Program on Law and Government, Lambda Law Society, Jewish Law Society (JLSA), Black Law Students Association (BLSA), and AU Office of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence—commemorated landmark legislation that expanded the federal definition of hate crimes and criminalized physical assault on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. The Shepard-Byrd Act also removed jurisdictional obstacles to prosecutions of certain race- and religion-motivated violence; enhanced the legal toolkit available to prosecutors, adding new federal protections against crimes based on gender, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation; and increased federal support of state and local law enforcement.

James Byrd Jr. was a 49-year-old African-American man murdered by three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas in 1998. That same year, Matthew Shepard, a gay 21-year-old college student, was beaten, tortured, and left to die in Laramie, Wyoming.

Welcoming attendees, BLSA President Joy Applewhite said “with the current climate, hosting this event was of the essence—with the vision in mind for us all to come together in unity and rise against hate.”

Lambda Executive Director Justin Snyder introduced Judy Shepard, underscoring how she not only has dedicated her life to sharing Matthew’s story and encouraging the inclusion and equality of all people, but has worked with the Foundation to pass this critical Act and provide hate crimes training to law enforcement officers and prosecutors across the country.

Judy Shepard discussed the pushback she received when she began advocating for the Act.

“The argument was, ‘you can’t legislate thoughts.’ Well, thoughts didn’t kill Matt. Thoughts didn’t kill James Byrd Jr. Actions killed them—actions motivated by hate and bigotry killed them. And if we don’t have a way to address that, we’re not going to progress.”

Judy Shepard speaks at "Rise Against Hate."

And there is still progress to be made toward becoming a nation of acceptance, Judy Shepard said, noting that many people “are afraid what they don’t understand and resist learning.” Speaking to the law students, she stressed that no matter what legal field they enter, they can make a difference.

“Even if you’re not a litigator. Even if you’re a corporate attorney or contract attorney, everything you do can still have an element of protecting society,” she said.

JLSA President Karin Goitman introduced the event’s panel, moderated by Professor Fernando Laguarda, Faculty Director of the Program on Law and Government. Panelists included Michael Lieberman, Anti-Defamation League; David Stacy, Human Rights Campaign; Kristen Clarke, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Mara Keisling, National Center for Transgender Equality; and Hilary Shelton, NAACP.

“The idea that civil rights groups, LGBT groups, Jewish community groups are working with law enforcement to increase federal police power—very rare,” Lieberman said.

“At the federal level, we weren’t saying that any crime that impacted one of the protected classes would become a federal crime,” Stacy added. “What the statute was designed to do was to give the Justice Department jurisdiction to come in when local law enforcement were not doing their job, or needed additional help when prosecuting these’s designed to incentivize that these crimes are taken more seriously on the local level, and making sure justice can be served.”