Template:SCOTUSCase Virginia v. Black et al., 538 U.S. 343 (2003), was a First Amendment case decided in the Supreme Court of the United States. Three defendants were convicted in two separate cases of violating a Virginia statute against cross burning. In this case, the Court struck down that statute to the extent that it considered cross burning as prima facie evidence of intent to intimidate. Such a provision, the Court argued, blurs the distinction between proscribable "threats of intimidation" and the Ku Klux Klan's protected "messages of shared ideology." However, cross-burning can be a criminal offense if the intent to intimidate is proven.
In cases such as Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, Template:Ussc, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, Template:Ussc, R. A. V. v. City of St. Paul (1992) and others, the Supreme Court has addressed various areas of controversial speech. The Court has frequently sided with the speakers, but occasionally the Court has sided with the government and acknowledged its (limited) power to pass laws protecting citizens from specific types of harmful speech.
In Virginia v. Black et al. the Court found that Virginia's statute against cross burning is unconstitutional, but cross burning done with an attempt to intimidate can be limited because such expression has a long and pernicious history as a signal of impending violence. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor delivered the opinion stating, "a state, consistent with the First Amendment, may ban cross burning carried out with the attempt to intimidate." In so doing, the Court created a new area of constitutionally unprotected speech for "true threats." Under that carve-out, "a State may choose to prohibit only those forms of intimidation that are most likely to inspire fear of bodily harm."
The Court did, however, strike down the provision in Virginia's statute which stated "Any such burning of a cross shall be prima facie evidence of an intent to intimidate a person or group of persons," holding that the provision was facially unconstitutional because of its "indiscriminate coverage." The state, therefore, must prove intent to intimidate.
Justice Clarence Thomas argued that cross-burning itself should be a First Amendment exception, as others have argued regarding flag-burning (see Justice William Rehnquist’s dissenting opinion in Texas v. Johnson), due to the historical association of cross-burning with terrorism. "[T]his statute," Thomas wrote, "prohibits only conduct, not expression. And, just as one cannot burn down someone's house to make a political point and then seek refuge in the First Amendment, those who hate cannot terrorize and intimidate to make their point."
Justice David Souter argued that cross-burning, even with the proven intent to intimidate, should not be a crime under the R. A. V. v. City of St. Paul precedent because of "the statute’s content-based distinction."