Content Regulation / Censorship
Loughran v. Century Newspapers Ltd
Closed Expands Expression
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The Supreme Court of the United States held that a state may enact a statute banning the act of cross burning with the intent to intimidate others as the First Amendment permits content-based restriction of true threats. The Court, however, ruled that it is in violation of the First Amendment right to free speech to treat any act of cross burning as a prima facie evidence of an intent to intimate.
This case arises out of the criminal conviction of three defendants for violation of a statute of Virginia State banning cross burning in the property of another or public places with intent to intimidate or place others in fear of bodily harm. Under the statute’s prima facie evidence provision, the physical act of burning a cross was seen as sufficient evidence for the jury to find an intent to intimidate others.
Upon their convictions, each defendant appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia, contending that that statute was facially unconstitutional.
The Court later declared the statute as unconstitutional because its prima facie evidence provision posed the risk of prosecuting legitimate exercise of symbolic expressions.
The State of Virginia petitioned the decision to Supreme Court of the United States.
Justice O’Connor delivered the Court’s majority opinion.
The underlying issue for the Court was whether the Virginia’s statute violated the First Amendment right to free speech because of its prima facie evidence provision.
The Court first recalled that the First Amendment “affords protection to symbolic or expressive conduct as well as to actual speech.” [p. 358] According to the Court, however, the importance of public interest in order and morality may restrict the content of speech in a few limited areas. [p. 358] For example, the First Amendment permits states to ban true threats, defined by the Court as “those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.” [p. 359] Relevant to the case in hand, the Court regarded intimidation as a type of true threat “where a speaker directs a threat to a person or group of persons with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.” [p. 360] The Court found that the act of cross burning often involves intimidation by creating fear in victims that they are a target of violence.
Furthermore, based its reasoning in R.A.V. v. St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377 (1992), the Court found that the statute as it banned cross burning with intent to intimidate did not run afoul of the First Amendment because it imposed content-based restriction on a particular class of speech likely to inspire fear of bodily harm.
However, the Court ruled the the prima facie evidence provision rendered the statute as facially unconstitutional because it would create an unacceptable risk of suppressing the act of cross burning as part a legitimate form of symbolic speech protected under the First Amendment, such as a statement of ideology or a symbol of group solidarity. [p. 366-367]
Accordingly, the Court concluded that because of the interpretation of the prima facie evidence provision given by the jury instruction, the provision made the statute facially unconstitutional.
The Court affirmed the judgment of the Supreme Court of Virginia as to its interpretation on the prima facie evidence provision.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This case expands freedom of expression by holding unconstitutional a statute that criminalized any type of cross burning without the requirement that the cross burning be done with the intent to intimidate.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
The Supreme Court of the United States held that he First Amendment right to free speech permits content-based restriction on particular classes of speech.
The Supreme Court of the United States held that the government may regulate certain categories of expression consistent with the Constitution.
“The First Amendment, applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment, provides that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.”
The U.S. Supreme Court held that “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the First Amendment affords protection to symbolic or expressive conduct as well as to actual speech.
The U.S. Supreme Court found that it is within the permissible parameters of the First Amendment to sanction “personally abusive epithets which, when addressed to the ordinary citizen, are, as a matter of common knowledge, inherently likely to provoke
“The constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”
“[T]hreats of violence are outside the First Amendment.”
“[T]hreats of violence are outside the First Amendment.”
According to the U.S. Supreme Court, “a statute that make[s] unlawful a substantial amount of constitutionally protected conduct may be held facially invalid.”
“Where a statute regulates expressive conduct, the scope of the statute does not render it unconstitutional unless its overbreadth is not only real, but substantial as well, judged in relation to the statute’s plainly legitimate sweep.”
“[N]o principle has found more consistent or clear expression than that the federal courts should not adjudicate the constitutionality of state enactments fairly open to interpretation until the state courts have been afforded a reasonable opportunity to pass upon them.”
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court creates both binding and persuasive precedent concerning the interoperation of the First Amendment as applied in this case.
Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.