VA Lawmakers Change Requirements For Cross-Burning Conviction

To win a conviction in a cross-burning case, prosecutors inVirginia will now have to prove that the cross-burner meant tointimidate someone.

Last month the Virginia Supreme Courtunanimously struck down a provision in the state’s cross-burningban that says the act alone proves an intent to intimidate. Thehigh court ruled 7-0 that the provision is overly broad and couldinfringe on freedom of speech.

Because cross burning has such a long historyas a “particularly virulent form of intimidation,” such laws do notviolate the First Amendment.

Although the Court upheld the core provisionsof the state’s 50-year-old cross-burning law, it ordered thelower court to review the narrower question of evidence necessaryto prove intimidation.  The law is now designed to protectsomebody engaging only in lawful political speech according to theFirst Amendment.

According to the ruling Justice Donald W.Lemons wrote, “The act of burning a cross may mean that a person isengaging in constitutionally proscribable intimidation. But thatsame act may mean only that the person is engaged in core politicalspeech.”

The American Civil Liberties Union hadchallenged the law. According to an Associated Press article KentWillis, executive director of the ACLU in Virginia, is pleased withthe outcome of the case. “This puts the cross-burning law where itshould be,” Willis told AP. “That is, if someone is going to beprosecuted for cross burning, there must be evidence there wasintent to intimidate someone based on their race or religion.”

The ruling came as justices affirmed theconvictions of two white men who burned a cross on the lawn of aninterracial couple in Virginia Beach. The court said theunconstitutional provision was not a factor in those cases.