Criminals who target their victims because of race, religion or sexual orientation can be punished more severly.
The Supreme Court said state governments may impose longer prison sentences and stiffer fines on those who commit so-called "hate crimes."
The unanimous decision came from a Wisconsin case in which a group of black teenagers beat a white youth after discussing the racial-ly charged movie Mississippi Burning. It upholds laws in 26 states that permit stiffer sentences on those who commit hate crimes.
Those laws were thrown in doubt last year when the court ruled unconstitutional a St. Paul, Minn., ordinance that prohibited the display of a symbol, such as a burning cross or swastika, that an individual has reason to know "arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender."
Since then, some lower-court judges have ruled that laws aimed at prejudicial expression violate the Constitution.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was unequivocal Friday in issuing his opinion: It is not an infringement of the First Amendment to increase a defendant's sentence because he selected his victim based on race.
He noted that the St. Paul ordinance was explicitly directed at expression. The Wisconsin statute, Rehnquist noted, is connected to underlying conduct, such as assault or vandalism.
"A physical assault is not by any stretch of the imagination expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment," Rehnquist wrote.
He also said that a defendant's motive for committing an offense has long been a factor in convictions and sentences.
Some lawyers had asserted that bigoted intentions, no matter how despicable, may not be punished without infringing on First Amendment guarantees.
The Anti-Defamation League, which had urged states to adopt hate crimes laws, hailed Friday's ruling as "an important milestone in the struggle to combat criminal conduct motivated by bigotry."
Florida law enforcement officials, who have been watching attempts to strike down the state's own hate-crimes statute, also hailed the decision.
"It's the result that we anticipated," said Deputy Attorney General Pete Antonacci. "It's the common sense result. The court has held that motive is always taken into account at the time of sentencing, and there's nothing unconstitutional about that.
"Therefore there's nothing unconstitutional about legislatures enhancing a penalty."
Several challenges to Florida's statute, which is similar to Wisconsin's, are pending before the Florida Supreme Court. Two county judges have struck down the law as unconstitutionally vague; three have upheld it.
Antonacci said the decision clearly bolsters the argument that Florida's law, which also provides for enhanced penalties for hate crimes, is constitutional.
Hillsborough State Attorney Harry Lee Coe scoffed at critics who say hate-crimes laws are an attempt to police people's thoughts.
"We're policing people's actions," he said. "Nobody is charged with conspiring to think about a hate crime; they're charged with committing hate crimes."
Coe is prosecuting a local racial crime that has drawn national attention, the burning of black New York tourist Christopher Wilson.
Actually, the hate-crimes law does not have direct bearing on the Wilson case, Coe explained. In the Wilson case, prosecutors already are arguing that the defendants, if convicted, should be sentenced to life in prison, the maximum possible penalty for the assault.
Still, the Supreme Court decision "comes at a very critical time," Coe said.
"The court has said that everybody in this nation and our community is going to be treated fairly."
The ruling is likely to spur Congress to enact a federal hate-crimes statute. Last year, the House passed a bill that would have imposed stricter sentences for persons whose crimes were motivated by bias, but the measure was not taken up in the Senate.
_ Information from Times staff writer Charlotte Sutton, the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times was used in this report.