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

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certiorari to the supreme court of minnesota

No. 90-7675. Argued December 4, 1991—Decided June 22, 1992

After allegedly burning a cross on a black family's lawn, petitioner R. A. V. was charged under, inter alia, the St. Paul, Minnesota, Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance, which prohibits the display of a symbol which one knows or has reason to know "arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender." The trial court dismissed this charge on the ground that the ordinance was substantially overbroad and impermissibly content based, but the State Supreme Court reversed. It rejected the overbreadth claim because the phrase "arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others" had been construed in earlier state cases to limit the ordinance's reach to "fighting words" within the meaning of this Court's decision in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U. S. 568, 572, a category of expression unprotected by the First Amendment. The court also concluded that the ordinance was not impermissibly content based because it was narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest in protecting the community against bias-motivated threats to public safety and order.

Held: The ordinance is facially invalid under the First Amendment. Pp. 381-396.

(a) This Court is bound by the state court's construction of the ordinance as reaching only expressions constituting "fighting words." However, R. A. V.'s request that the scope of the Chaplinsky formulation be modified, thereby invalidating the ordinance as substantially overbroad, need not be reached, since the ordinance unconstitutionally prohibits speech on the basis of the subjects the speech addresses. P. 381.

(b) A few limited categories of speech, such as obscenity, defamation, and fighting words, may be regulated because of their constitutionally proscribable content. However, these categories are not entirely invisible to the Constitution, and government may not regulate them based on hostility, or favoritism, towards a nonproscribable message they contain. Thus the regulation of "fighting words" may not be based on nonproscribable content. It may, however, be underinclusive, addressing some offensive instances and leaving other, equally offensive, ones alone, so long as the selective proscription is not based on content, or there is no realistic possibility that regulation of ideas is afoot. Pp. 382-390.


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