US Supreme Court Decision Puts Tight Limit on `Hate Speech' Laws

Article excerpt

THE legality of "hate speech" regulations throughout the United States is open to doubt after a Supreme Court decision June 22 in a Minnesota cross-burning case.

The court used a surprisingly wide broom to sweep away a St. Paul city ordinance against speech that causes "anger, alarm, or resentment" based on race or religion.

The unanimous decision plays against a backdrop of social controversy over political correctness. The majority opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia made clear that the injuries of racist epithets and symbols will not outweigh the right to free speech.

The justices were widely expected to throw out the St. Paul ordinance because it was written too broadly to get past the Constitutional right to free speech. Instead, the court made a nearly absolute ban on regulating speech according to the views it expresses.

The ruling "makes almost all possible forms of hate-speech bans unconstitutional," says Rod Smolla, a free-speech expert at the law school of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va.

In the past two years alone, seven states have enacted new hate-crimes legislation, and six states have strengthened existing legislation.

Most stiffen penalties when group bigotry is behind acts that are already criminal. The only states without hate-crime laws are Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Alaska.

Jess Hordes, Washington director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, is optimistic that the impact of this decision will be limited to such sweeping laws as the St. Paul ordinance. Yet he admits that the decision is "a near-absolute ban on content-based regulation."

One night in June of 1990, some white youths in a working class neighborhood in St. Paul made a cross from broken chair legs and set it on fire in the front yard of Russ and Laura Jones and their five children. The Joneses were the only black family living in the neighborhood.

The leader of the cross burners was prosecuted under a 1982 city ordinance that bars placing any symbol with the knowledge that it "arouses anger, alarm, or resentment in others based on race, color, creed, religion, or gender. …