Global Freedom of Expression

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

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Non-verbal Expression
  • Date of Decision
    June 22, 1992
  • Outcome
    Decision - Procedural Outcome, Reversed Lower Court, Decision Outcome (Disposition/Ruling), Law or Action Overturned or Deemed Unconstitutional
  • Case Number
    505 US 377
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Supreme (court of final appeal)
  • Type of Law
    Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Hate Speech, Indecency / Obscenity
  • Tags

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The U.S. Supreme Court held that an ordinance prohibiting “fighting words” that were racially motivated was unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The ruling overturned the plaintiff’s conviction by the Minnesota Supreme Court for burning a cross on the lawn of an African American family. The Court stated that restricting specific categories of speech, namely obscenity, defamation and fighting words, was allowed under the constitution but not if that restriction is based on content or threatens the censorship of ideas.


The Petitioner assembled a cross made of broken chair legs which he burned in the fenced yard of an African American family who lived nearby. The city of St. Paul charged the Petitioner under the St. Paul Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance which provided, “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.”

The Petitioner applied to dismiss this count of the charge arguing that the statute was over-broad and content-based, making it facially invalid. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss, but the Supreme Court of Minnesota reversed. The Supreme Court of Minnesota found that the ordinance was aimed only at “fighting words” which are unprotected by the First Amendment. The petitioner appealed.

Decision Overview

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court holding that the statute was facially unconstitutional.

The Court noted that it was bound by the Minnesota Supreme Court’s interpretation of the statute that the ordinance reached only “fighting words,” which are not protected under the First Amendment. However, it went on to hold that the ordinance was “facially unconstitutional in that it prohibits otherwise permitted speech solely on the basis of the subjects the speech addresses.” [382]. Specifically, the Court found that because the ordinance was aimed at words that provoke violence “on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender,” it was a content-based, discriminatory restriction and therefore impermissible under the First Amendment. [391].

Justice Scalia said that First Amendment jurisprudence has long held that nonverbal activity cannot be banned on the basis of the idea it expresses, for example, the burning of a flag could be punishable under an ordinance prohibiting fires but not under an ordinance prohibiting the burning of flags because of the message of dishonor it conveys. Although the Minnesota ordinance was aimed only at fighting words (unprotected speech), it only criminalized those words which were racially motivated and was therefore facially invalid. The Court found that the city could just as easily have enacted a statute prohibiting this type of unprotected speech, but not limiting the speech to that only aimed at certain individuals.

Justice White concurred (joined by Justice Blackmun, Justice O’Connor, and Justice Stevens in part):

Justice White concurred to emphasize that he agreed with the Court’s outcome in this case, but with none of its analysis. He said he would have decided the issue on overbreadth grounds, adding that the “Court has disregarded two established principles of First Amendment law without providing a coherent replacement theory.”

Justice Blackmun concurred:

Justice Blackmun wrote separately to note that by forbidding categorization of prohibited speech, as the Court has done here, the Court weakens First Amendment protections in other instances.

Justice Stevens (joined by Justice White and Blackmun in part) concurred in the judgment:

Justice Stevens wrote separately to emphasize that although he agreed with the Court’s conclusion, he found the reasoning used to reach the decision was incorrect. Specifically, the concurrence argued that the majority is essentially stating that a government is only able to proscribe all speech or no speech at all to come within the confines of the First Amendment (finding that content-based restrictions are presumptively invalid). He said First Amendment jurisprudence is not that inflexible.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

This case expands expression by striking down a statute that restricts speech on the basis of content. However, the concurring opinions raise some interesting arguments. Specifically, Justice Blackman argues that by forbidding categorization of speech, as the Court has done here, the Court is weakening First Amendment protections in other areas.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • U.S., Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942)
  • U.S., Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940)
  • U.S., Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989)
  • U.S., Simon & Schuster, Inc. v. N.Y. State Crime Victims Bd., 502 U.S. 105 (1991)
  • U.S., Consol. Edison Co. v. Pub. Serv. Comm., 447 U.S. 530 (1980)
  • U.S., Police Dept. of Chicago v. Mosley, 408 U.S. 92 (1972)
  • U.S., In re Welfare of S.L.J., 263 N.W.2d 412 (Minn. 1978)
  • U.S., In Re Welfare of R.A.V., 464 N.W.2d 507 (Minn. 1991).
  • U.S., Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957)
  • U.S., Beauharnais v. Illinois, 343 U.S. 250 (1952)
  • U.S., New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)
  • U.S., Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974)
  • U.S., Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1 (1990)
  • U.S., Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973)
  • U.S., Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc., 466 U.S. 485 (1984)
  • U.S., Sable Comms. of Cal., Inc. v. FCC, 492 U.S. 115 (1989)
  • U.S., New York v. Ferber, 458 U.S. 747 (1982)
  • U.S., Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc., 501 U.S. 560 (1991)
  • U.S., United States v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968)
  • U.S., Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781 (1989)
  • U.S., Clark v. Cmty. for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U.S. 288 (1984)
  • U.S., Niemotko v. Maryland, 340 U.S. 268 (1951)
  • U.S., Frisby v. Schultz, 487 U.S. 474 (1988)
  • U.S., Carey v. Brown, 447 U.S. 455 (1980)
  • U.S., Leathers v. Medlock, 499 U.S. 439 (1991)
  • U.S., FCC v. League of Women Voters, 468 U.S. 364 (1984)
  • U.S., Kucharek v. Hanaway, 902 F.2d 513 (7th Cir. 1990)
  • U.S., Watts v. United States, 394 U.S. 705 (1969)
  • U.S., Va. State Bd. of Pharm. v. Va. Citizens Consumer Council, Inc., 425 U.S. 748 (1976)
  • U.S., Morales v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 504 U.S. 374 (1992)
  • U.S., Watts v. United States, 394 U.S. 705 (1969)
  • U.S., Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc., 475 U.S. 41 (1986)
  • U.S., Young v. American Mini Theatres, Inc., 427 U.S. 50 (1976)
  • U.S., FTC v. Superior Court Trial Lawyers Assn., 493 U.S. 411 (1990)
  • U.S., Arkansas Writers’ Project, Inc. v. Ragland, 481 U.S. 221 (1987)
  • U.S., Metromedia, Inc. v. City of San Diego, 453 U.S. 490 (1981)
  • U.S., Boos v. Barry, 485 U.S. 312 (1988)
  • U.S., Burson v. Freeman, 504 U.S. 191 (1992)
  • U.S., Perry Educ. Ass’n v. Perry Local Educators’ Ass’n, 460 U.S. 37 (1983)
  • U.S., Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Minn. Comm'r of Revenue, 460 U.S. 575 (1983)
  • U.S., Bose Corp. v. Consumers Union of United States, Inc., 466 U.S. 485 (1984)
  • U.S., Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919)
  • U.S., Bigelow v. Virginia, 421 U.S. 809 (1975)
  • U.S., Broadrick v. Oklahoma, 413 U.S. 601 (1973)
  • U.S., Osborne v. Ohio, 495 U.S. 103 (1990)
  • U.S., Brockett v. Spokane Arcades, Inc., 472 U.S. 491 (1985)
  • U.S., Eu v. San Francisco Cty. Democratic Central Comm. 489 U.S. 214 (1989)
  • U.S., Vill. of Schaumburg v. Citizens for a Better Envt., 444 U.S. 620, 632 – 33 (1980)
  • U.S., Gooding v. Wilson, 405 U. S. 518 (1972)
  • U.S., United States v. Eichman, 496 U.S. 310 (1990)
  • U.S., Hustler Magazine, Inc., v. Falwell, 485 U. S. 46 (1998)
  • U.S., FCC v. Pacifica Found., 438 U.S. 726 (1978)
  • U.S., Hess v. Indiana, 414 U.S. 105 (1973)
  • U.S., Street v. New York, 394 U.S. 576 (1969)
  • U.S., Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949)
  • U.S., Musser v. Utah, 333 U.S. 95 (1948)
  • U.S., Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc., 472 U.S. 749 (1985)
  • U.S., Jacob Siegel Co. v. FTC, 327 U.S. 608 (1946)
  • U.S., Ohralik v. Ohio State Bar Ass’n, 436 U.S. 447 (1978)
  • U.S., United States Postal Serv. v. Council of Greenburgh Civic Ass'ns, 453 U.S. 114 (1981)
  • U.S., Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974)
  • U.S., Meyer v. Grant, 486 U.S. 414 (1988)
  • U.S., Posadas de Puerto Rico Associates v. Tourism Co. of Puerto Rico, 478 U.S. 328 (1986)
  • U.S., Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988)
  • U.S., Bantam Books, Inc. v. Sullivan, 372 U.S. 58 (1963)
  • U.S., First Nat. Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765 (1978)
  • U.S., Consol. Edison Co. v. Pub. Serv. Comm., 447 U.S. 530 (1980)
  • U.S., Marks v. United States, 430 U.S. 188 (1977)
  • U.S., Smith v. United States, 431 U.S. 291 (1977)
  • U.S., Valentine v. Chrestensen, 316 U.S. 52 (1942)
  • U.S., Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263 (1981)
  • U.S., Schacht v. United States, 398 U.S. 58 (1970)
  • U.S., Constitution of the United States (1789), First Amendment.
  • Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corp. v Arkansas Pub. Serv. Commission 461 U.S. 375 1983
  • Brown v. Socialist Workers Comm. 459 U.S. 87 (1982)
  • Eddings v. Oklahoma 455 U.S. 104 (1982)
  • CSC v. Letter Carriers 413 U.S. 548 (1973)
  • Allied-Signal, Inc. v. Director, Div. of Taxation 504 U.S. 768 (1992)
  • Quill Corp. v. North Dakota (91-0194), 504 U.S. 298 (1992)
  • U.S., Bd. of Airport Comm'rs v. Jews for Jesus, 482 U.S. 569 (1987)
  • Lewis v. City of New Orelans, (1974) No. 72-6156
  • Kolender v. Lawson 461 U.S. 352 (1983)
  • NLRB v. Gissel Packing Co., Inc. 395 U.S. 575 (1969)
  • U.S., Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451 (1987).
  • Illinois v. Gates 462 U.S. 213 (1983)
  • U.S., Virginia v. American Booksellers Assoc., 484 U.S. 383 (1988)
  • U.S., Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville, 422 U.S. 205 (1975)
  • Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson 477 U.S. 57 (1986)
  • U.S., Ginsberg v. New York, 390 U.S. 629 (1968)
  • United Mine Workers v. Pennington 381 U.S. 657 (1965)
  • U.S., E. R.R. Presidents Conference v. Noerr Motors, Inc., 365 U.S. 127 (1961)
  • Packer Corporation of Utah 285 U.S. 105 (1932)
  • U.S., Cornelius v. NAACP Legal Def. & Educ. Fund, 473 U.S. 788 (1985)

Case Significance

Quick Info

Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

As a decision of the Supreme Court, this decision binds all lower courts.

The decision is particularly significant because it created a standard in which virtually all hate speech is protected.

Whilst accepting that ‘fighting words’ were unprotected by the First Amendment, following the Supreme Court case of Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942), the Court held that the regulation of fighting words by subject matter was unconstitutional and such speech was protected by the First Amendment.


The decision was cited in:

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