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

Citation. 22 Ill.505 U.S. 377, 112 S. Ct. 2538, 120 L. Ed. 2d 305 (1992)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Petitioner R.A.V. was indicted for allegedly burning a cross on the yard of an African-American neighbor. Petitioner was charged under the St. Paul Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance that prohibits certain conduct that causes resentment in others based on race, color, creed or religion. Petitioner filed a motion to have the trial court declare the ordinance unconstitutional. The motion was upheld, but upon appeal the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed. Petitioner appeals to the Supreme Court to answer this question.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

A State must show that a regulation, which limits speech and expression, is reasonably necessary to achieve the State’s compelling interests. Imposing limitations on certain types of speech simply because they express a disfavored viewpoint on a topic, is expressly prohibited by the First Amendment of the Constitution.


On June 21, 1990, Petitioner, a juvenile, and several other individuals allegedly assembled a crudely-made cross and burned it inside the fenced yard of a black family that lived across the street from Petitioner. Petitioner was then charged under the St. Paul Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance, which provides that “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.” Petitioner claims this is impermissibly content-based legislation and therefore facially invalid under the First Amendment, and therefore filed a motion as such. The trial court granted this motion, but the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed on account that the phrase discussing the arousal
of anger amounts to fighting words. Petitioner then appealed to the United States Supreme Court.


Whether the St. Paul ordinance is facially unconstitutional in that it prohibits otherwise permitted speech solely on the basis of the subjects the speech addresses?


Yes. The St. Paul ordinance is facially unconstitutional. The First Amendment does not permit St. Paul to impose special prohibitions on those speakers who express views on disfavored topics. Although some terms amount to fighting words, the remaining unmodified terms of the ordinance make clear that the ordinance applies only to fighting words that insult or provoke violence. Displays containing abusive invective are permissible unless they are addressed to one of the specified disfavored topics. The ordinance is unconstitutional because it goes even beyond content discrimination to viewpoint discrimination, prohibiting the expression of certain viewpoints it holds to be repugnant. A regulation cannot consist of selective discriminations on speech, as the First Amendment imposes not an underinclusiveness limitation but a content discrimination limitation upon a State’s prohibition of proscribable speech. As this ordinance is not reasonably necessary to achieve St. Paul’s compe
lling interests, which could have been accomplished by not limiting this regulation to the favored topics within in, this ordinance is unconstitutional.
Concurrence. The Ordinance is fatally overbroad and invalid on its face. This is because it not only reaches conduct that unprotected, but also makes criminal expressive conduct that causes only hurt feelings, offense, or resentment and protected by the First Amendment.
Sees no harm in a law that prohibits hoodlums from driving minorities out of their homes, but sees great harm in preventing the people of St. Paul from specifically punishing the race-based fighting words that prejudice the community. But concurs based on an agreement that the ordinance in this case reaches beyond fighting words to speech protected by the First Amendment.
The St. Paul ordinance regulates expressive activity that is wholly proscribable and does so not on the basis of viewpoint, but rather in recognition of the different harms caused by such activity. Therefore the St. Paul ordinance is not an unconstitutional content-based regulation. Therefore if it were not overbroad, this concurring Justice would vote to uphold it.


This case, like others in this area, stands for the fundamental principle that if a regulation is overbroad and regulates protected First Amendment expression, in addition to unlawful forms of expression that is not protected by the First Amendment, the regulation in whole will be declared invalid. This will be the case even when the conduct in question is totally abhorrent, and shows the resolve in the Supreme Court to uphold First Amendment protections.

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