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?
Yes. In a 9-to-0 vote, the justices held the ordinance invalid on its face because "it prohibits otherwise permitted speech solely on the basis of the subjects the speech addresses." The First Amendment prevents government from punishing speech and expressive conduct because it disapproves of the ideas expressed. Under the ordinance, for example, one could hold up a sign declaring all anti-semites are bastards but not that all Jews are bastards. Government has no authority "to license one side of a debate to fight freestyle, while requiring the other to follow the Marquis of Queensbury Rules."
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