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

    Citation. 505 U.S. 377, 112 S. Ct. 2538, 120 L. Ed. 2d 305, 1992 U.S. 3863.

    Brief Fact Summary. After allegedly burning a cross on a black family’s lawn, the Petitioner, R.A.V. (Petitioner) a teenager, was charged under the St. Paul, Minnesota, Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance (the Ordinance), which prohibits the display of a burning cross, swastika or other symbol that one knows or has reason to know “arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others” on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A content-based distinction within a category of expression that can constitutionally be restricted violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution). A city may not prohibit expression of particular ideas on the basis of the subjects the speech addresses. It may prohibit all fighting words or even single out “especially offensive mode of expression,” but it may not proscribe particular “messages of racial, gender, or religious intolerance.”


    Facts. After allegedly burning a cross on a black family’s lawn, the Petitioner a teenager, was charged under the Ordinance, which prohibits the display of a burning cross, swastika or other symbol that one knows or has reason to know “arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others” on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender. The State Supreme Court rejected a claim that the ordinance was unconstitutionally overbroad because the phrase “arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others” had been construed in earlier state cases to limit the ordinance’s reach to “fighting words” within the meaning of the Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire decision. The Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) also rejected the claim that the ordinance was impermissibly content-based because it was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest.

    Issue. Whether a municipality may constitutionally enact an ordinance that makes it a crime to place a symbol on public or private property that arouses anger in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, or gender?

    Held. The ordinance is facially unconstitutional, even though the Minnesota Supreme Court previously narrowly construed the ordinance, because it prohibits speech solely on the basis of the subjects the speech addresses.
    Concurrence. Concurring opinions were offered by Justices Byron White (J. White), Harry Blackmun (J. Blackmun) and John Paul Stevens (J. Stevens).
    J. White: The Ordinance is unconstitutional, but should be decided upon overbreadth grounds.
    J. Blackmun: There are no First Amendment values that are disturbed by the Ordinance as written. However, the judgment should stand because the particular ordinance reaches beyond fighting words to speech protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.
    J. Stevens: The Ordinance does not favor one side or the other, it merely prevents either side from using communication on the basis of race, color, religion, creed or gender.

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    Discussion. The Ordinance is prohibited because it applies only to those fighting words that insult or provoke violence against persons based on “race, color, creed, religion or gender.” Therefore, if the Ordinance were upheld, those who wished to use fighting words in connection with other ideas, such as on the basis of political affiliation, union membership or homosexuality, would not be covered. The First Amendment of the Constitution does not permit St. Paul to impose special prohibitions on those speakers who express views on disfavored subjects.

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