1990 June 21

Teens Burn Cross; Hate Crime Case Goes to Supreme Court


In the pre-dawn hours on this day, a group of teenagers in St. Paul, Minnesota burned a cross on the front lawn of an African American family who lived across the street from one of the teenager’s (known in the case as R.A.V.) family. R.A.V. was convicted under St. Paul’s Bias Motivated Crime ordinance. The case involved the difficult issue of whether actions such as cross-burning was a form of expression protected by the First Amendment or a punishable hate crime.

The St. Paul incident led to the Supreme Court case of R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul in June 1992, in which the Court unanimously overturned the St. Paul ordinance as violating the First Amendment.

Interestingly, the majority opinion involved the five most conservative members of the Court. The four other Justices concurred, but in separate opinions concurring only in part with the majority.

The St. Paul ordinance: “Whoever places on public or private property, a symbol, object, appellation, characterization or graffiti, including, but not limited to, a burning cross or Nazi swastika, which one knows or has reasonable grounds to know arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender commits disorderly conduct and shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.”

Justice Antonin Scalia for the Court: “Although the phrase in the ordinance, ‘arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others,’ has been limited by the Minnesota Supreme Court’s construction to reach only those symbols or displays that amount to ‘fighting words,’ the remaining, unmodified terms make clear that the ordinance applies only to ‘fighting words’ that insult, or provoke violence, ‘on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender.’ Displays containing abusive invective, no matter how vicious or severe, are permissible unless they are addressed to one of the specified disfavored topics. Those who wish to use “fighting words” in connection with other ideas — to express hostility, for example, on the basis of political affiliation, union membership, or homosexuality — are not covered. The First Amendment does not permit St. Paul to impose special prohibitions on those speakers who express views on disfavored subjects.’”

Learn more about hate crimes: http://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do/hate-and-extremism

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