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Supreme Court Upholds Cross-Burning Ban
Mon Apr 7, 4:22 PM ET
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By GINA HOLLAND, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court ruled Monday that states can punish Ku Klux Klansmen and others who set crosses afire, finding that a burning cross is an instrument of racial terror so threatening that it overshadows free speech concerns.
The court voted 6-3 to uphold a 50-year-old Virginia law making it a crime to burn a cross as an act of intimidation. A lower court had ruled the law muzzled free speech.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (news - web sites), writing for the majority, said the protections afforded by the First Amendment "are not absolute" and do not necessarily shield cross burners.
Justice Clarence Thomas (news - web sites), the court's only black member and a law-and-order conservative who frequently departs from civil rights orthodoxy, wrote separately that "those who hate cannot terrorize and intimidate to make their point."
The ruling seemed at odds with past Supreme Court decisions that protected the constitutional speech rights of unsavory or unpopular groups and causes, including flag burners, pornographers and strippers, and people who use swastikas or crosses in demonstrations.
"This is an emotional topic for everyone," said New York free speech lawyer Floyd Abrams, noting the cross-burning ties to racist violence. "The ruling is nonetheless a defeat for First Amendment principles."
Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore predicted the decision would prompt more states to outlaw cross burning.
"A burning cross is a symbol like no other. It doesn't just say we don't like you. The message is we are going to do you harm," Kilgore said.
States that have anti-cross burning laws include California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and the District of Columbia.
The Virginia case evoked a mostly bygone era in the South, when "nightriders" set crosses ablaze as a symbol of intimidation to blacks and civil rights sympathizers.
Thomas grew up in then-segregated Georgia. During arguments in the case, he spoke of a century of violence and terror at the hands of the Klan and other white supremacy groups.
"The cross was a symbol of that reign of terror," Thomas said, breaking his customary silence during arguments.
In the ruling, the justices seemed to carve out just a small exception for protected burnings.
"While a burning cross does not inevitably convey a message of intimidation, often the cross burner intends that the recipients of the message fear for their lives," O'Connor wrote. "And when a cross burning is used to intimidate, few if any messages are more powerful."
O'Connor was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens (news - web sites), Antonin Scalia (news - web sites) and Stephen Breyer (news - web sites).
Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, David Souter (news - web sites) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (news - web sites) dissented on free-speech grounds.
"The symbolic act of burning a cross, without more, is consistent with both intent to intimidate and intent to make an ideological statement free of any aim to threaten," Souter wrote. He said the Virginia law does not draw enough of a distinction.
Thomas agreed that cross burning is abhorrent but said the court didn't even have to consider the First Amendment implications because the state had a right to bar conduct it considered "particularly vicious."
"Just as one cannot burn down someone's house to make a political point and then seek refuge in the First Amendment, those who hate cannot terrorize and intimidate to make their point," he wrote.
Virginia was defending its prosecutions of three men. In one case, two white men in Virginia Beach, Va., ended a night of partying by trying to burn a 4-foot cross in the yard of a black neighbor. The neighbor later moved his family because of concern for their safety.
In the other case, a Pennsylvania man was convicted of burning a 30-foot cross on private land in rural southern Virginia during a KKK rally. The court threw out that conviction due to faulty jury instruction. Jurors were told that cross-burning alone is evidence of an intent to intimidate.
The case is Virginia v. Black, 01-1107.
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