R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul

RESPONDENT:City of St. Paul
LOCATION:Burning Cross at residence

DOCKET NO.: 90-7675
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1991-1993)
LOWER COURT: Minnesota Supreme Court

CITATION: 505 US 377 (1992)
ARGUED: Dec 04, 1991
DECIDED: Jun 22, 1992

Edward J. Cleary – Argued the cause for the petitioner
Tom Foley – Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

Several teenagers allegedly burned a crudely fashioned cross on a black family’s lawn. The police charged one of the teens under a local bias-motivated criminal ordinance which prohibits the display of a symbol which “arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender.” The trial court dismissed this charge. The state supreme court reversed. R.A.V. appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.


Is the ordinance overly broad and impermissibly content-based in violation of the First Amendment free speech clause?

Media for R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – December 04, 1991 in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 22, 1992 in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 90-7675, R.A.V. versus St. Paul, Minnesota will be announced by Justice Scalia.

Antonin Scalia:

This is a petition for writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of Minnesota.

Just about two years ago in the predawn hours of June 21, 1990, the petitioner, R.A.V. a juvenile and several other teenagers, allegedly assembled a crudely made cross by taping together broken chair legs.

They then allegedly burned the cross inside the fenced yard of a Black family that lived across the street from the house where petitioner was staying.

Although this conduct could have been punished under any of a number of laws carrying significant penalties.

One of the two provisions under which the respondent, City of St. Paul, chose to charge petitioner was the St. Paul bias-motivated crime ordinance which prohibits the display of a symbol which one knows or has reason to know “arouses anger, alarm, or resentment in other on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, or gender”.

The Trial Court dismissed this charge on the ground that the ordinance violated the First Amendment because it was substantially over broad and impermissibly content-based.

The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed thereby, upholding the ordinance.

In an opinion filed today with the Clerk, we reverse the judgment of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

This Court is bound by the State Court’s construction of the ordinance as reaching only expressions constituting fighting words, a category of expression that we have previously held to be unprotected by the First Amendment.

R.A.V. urges us to narrow the scope of the fighting words doctrine contained in our cases thereby, invalidating the ordinance as substantially over broad.

But we need not reach that issue.

We conclude that the ordinance is facially unconstitutional because it prohibits speech on the basis of the subjects the speech addresses.

The First Amendment generally prohibits government from proscribing speech or even expressive conduct because of disapproval of the ideas expressed.

There are, however, a few limited categories of speech such as obscenity, defamation, and fighting words that have traditionally been subject to regulation on a basis of content.

Although we have sometimes said in our cases that these categories of expression are “not within the area of constitutionally protect speech”, all that such statements mean is that these areas of speech can consistently with the First Amendment be regulated because of their constitutionally proscribeable content.

That is because of their obscenity, defamation, etcetera.

It does not mean that they are categories of speech entirely invisible to the Constitution so that they may be made of vehicles for content discrimination unrelated to their distinctively proscribeable content.

Thus, the government may not regulate fighting words based on hostility or favoritism towards a protected message that the fighting words contain.

Just as a City Council, for example, could not prohibit only that obscenity which criticizes the City Council.

Regulation of fighting words and other proscribeable categories of speech may, however, be under inclusive addressing some offensive instances and leaving other equal offensive instances alone so long as the selectective prescription is not based on content or there is no realistic possibility that regulation of ideas is afoot.

In light of these principles we conclude that the ordinance, even as narrowly construed by the State Supreme Court, is facially unconstitutional because it imposes special prohibitions on those speakers who express views on the disfavored subjects of race, color, creed, religion, or gender.

Moreover, in its practical operation the ordinance goes beyond mere content discrimination to actual viewpoint discrimination fighting words that do not themselves invoke race, color, creed, religion, or gender.

Aspersions upon a person’s mother, for example, would seemingly be usable ad libitum in the placards of those arguing in favor of racial, color, etc. , tolerance and equality but could not be used by that speaker’s opponents.

St. Paul’s expressed desire to communicate to minority groups, that it does not condone the group hatred of bias-motivated speech, does not justify selectively silencing speech based on it content.

Let there be no mistake about this Court’s belief that burning a cross in someone’s front yard is reprehensible.

But, St. Paul has sufficient means at its disposal to prevent such behavior without adding the First Amendment to the fire.

We, therefore, reverse the judgment of the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Justice White has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in which Justice Blackmun and Justice O’Connor join, and in which Justice Stevens joins in part; Justice Blackmun has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment; Justice Stevens has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in which Justice White and Justice Blackmun join in part.