R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul
Decided on June 22, 1992; 505 US 377

The Court overturned the conviction of a juvenile accused of burning a cross in the yard of a black family, on the grounds that Minnesota Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance prohibited speech on the basis of its content and constituted a viewpoint discrimination.



A. Issues Discussed: Freedom of expression

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does the Minnesota 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 others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender," violate the First Amendment?


A. Background:

"After allegedly burning a cross on a black family's lawn, petitioner R.A.V. was charged under, inter alia, the St. Paul, Minnesota, 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 others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender."

The trial court dismissed this charge on the ground that the ordinance was substantially overbroad and impermissibly content based, but the State Supreme Court reversed. It rejected the overbreadth claim 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 this Court's decision in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 US 568, 572 , a category of expression unprotected by the First Amendment. The court also concluded that the ordinance was not impermissibly content based, because it was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest in protecting the community against bias-motivated threats to public safety and order."

On certiorari the US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Minnesota.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Brief of amici curiae urging reversal were filed for the American Civil Liberties Union et al. by Steven R. Shapiro, John A. Powell, and Mark R. Anfinson; for the Association of American Publishers et al. by Bruce J. Ennis; and for the Center for Individual Rights by Gary B. Born and Michael P. McDonald.

Edward J. Cleary argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs was Michael F. Cromett.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed for the State of Minnesota et al. by Hubert H. Humphrey III, Attorney General of Minnesota, and Richard S. Slowes, Assistant Attorney General, Jimmy Evans, Attorney General of Alabama, Grant Woods, Attorney General of Arizona, Richard Blumenthal, Attorney General of Connecticut, and John J. Kelly, Chief State's Attorney of Connecticut, Larry EchoHawk, Attorney General of Idaho, Roland W. Burris, Attorney General of Illinois, Robert T. Stephan, Attorney General of Kansas, J. Joseph Curran, Jr., Attorney General of Maryland, Scott Harshbarger, Attorney General of Massachusetts, Frank J. Kelley, Attorney General of Michigan, Robert J. Del Tufo, Attorney General of New Jersey, Lee I. Fisher, Attorney General of Ohio, Susan B. Loving, Attorney General of Oklahoma, T. Travis Medlock, Attorney General of South Carolina, Charles W. Burson, Attorney General of Tennessee, Mary Sue Terry, Attorney General of Virginia, and Paul Van Dam, Attorney General of Utah; for the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith by Allen I. Saeks, Jeffrey P. Sinensky, Steven M. Freeman, and Michael Lieberman; for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund et al. by Angelo N. Ancheta; for the Center for Democratic Renewal et al. by Frank E. Deale; for the Criminal justice Legal Foundation by Kent S. Scheidegger and Charles L. Hobson; for the League of Minnesota Cities et al. by Carla J. Heyl, Robert J. Alfton, and Jerome J. Segal; for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People et al. by Ronald D. Maines, Dennis C. Hayes, Willie Abrams, and Kemp R. Harshman; for the National Black Women's Health Project by Catharine A. MacKinnon and Burke Marshall; for the National Institute of Municipal Law Officers et al. by Richard Ruda, Michael J. Wahoske, and Mark B. Rotenberg; and for People for the American Way by Richard S. Hoffman, Kevin J. Hasson, and Elliot M. Mincberg. Tom Foley argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief was Steven C. DeCoster.

"The ordinance is facially invalid under the First Amendment...

A few limited categories of speech, such as obscenity, defamation, and fighting words, may be regulated because of their constitutionally proscribable content. However, these categories are not entirely invisible to the Constitution, and government may not regulate them based on hostility, or favoritism, towards a nonproscribable message they contain..

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, to actual viewpoint, discrimination... St. Paul's desire to communicate to minority groups that it does not condone the 'group hatred' of bias-motivated speech does not justify selectively silencing speech on the basis of its content...

In addition, the ordinance's content discrimination is not justified on the ground that the ordinance is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest in ensuring the basic human rights of groups historically discriminated against, since an ordinance not limited to the favored topics would have precisely the same beneficial effect."

The US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Minnesota.

Justice Vote: 9 Pro vs. 0 Con
  • Scalia, A.Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Kennedy, A. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Souter, D. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Thomas, C. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • O'Connor, S.D. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J.P. Pro (Wrote concurring opinion)

The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged reversal of the judgment the Supreme Court of Minnesota; the US Supreme Court reversed in a 9-0 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.