R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, Minnesota
505 U.S. 377 (1992)

  • R.A.V. (a minor) and several other kids burned a cross to intimidate a black family. He was arrested and charged under a Minnesota law that made it a crime to use racially objectionable symbols (crosses, swastika, etc) to arouse anger or resentment.
  • R.A.V. et. al. were convicted of disorderly conduct for their use of the cross. They appealed.
    • R.A.V. argued that the Minnesota law was an unconstitutional infringement of his freedom of speech, as guaranteed by the 1st Amendment.
  • The US Supreme Court overturned the conviction and found the Minnesota law to be unconstitutional.
    • The US Supreme Court acknowledged that certain forms of speech (including fighting words) were not constitutional protected.
      • See Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (315 U.S. 568 (1942)).
    • However, the Court found that the Minnesota law was too narrow in that it only outlawed certain types of content (e.g. racist hate speech). That amounted to a content-based distinction.
    • The Court found that there is a strong presumption that a law that distinguishes speech on the basis of content is a violation of the 1st Amendment.
      • There are two exceptions to this presumption:
        • Where the distinction advances the reason why the category is unprotected.
        • Where the restriction is meant to prevent secondary effects.
  • Basically, this case said that there are types of speech that the government can censor (aka unprotected speech), but it is only constitutional if the censoring is based on the type of the speech, and the government regulates it in a content-neutral way.
    • So, for example, the government may “proscribe libel, but it may not make the further content discrimination of proscribing only libel critical of the government.”
    • Sometimes that’s called viewpoint-neutral.