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Va. Court Lifts Cross-Burning Ban

November 03, 2001|From the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The Virginia Supreme Court struck down the state's 49-year-old ban on cross-burning Friday, ruling that the activity is a form of expression and protected by the 1st Amendment.

The 4 to 3 decision said the 1952 statute unfairly discriminated against a particular symbol and viewpoint and overturned the convictions of a Ku Klux Klan leader and two other men who were charged in two incidents in 1998.

"Under our system of government, people have the right to use symbols to communicate," Justice Donald Lemons wrote for the majority. "They may patriotically wave the flag or burn it in protest; they may reverently worship the cross or burn it as an expression of bigotry."

But the court's lone black justice, Leroy R. Hassell Sr., and two colleagues dissented, arguing that the law did not infringe on protected speech. "The 1st Amendment does not permit a person to burn a cross in a manner that intentionally places another person in fear of bodily harm," Hassell wrote.

The statute stems from the Virginia General Assembly's effort to cope with growing KKK activity in the early 1950s, a time when racial tension was high. The Legislature banned cross-burning on another person's property without permission in 1952, and then expanded the law in 1968 to cover any public place.

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