By Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia
Recently, an African-American lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia appeared in court in Hillsville, Virginia, to defend the right of a Ku Klux Klan member to burn a cross. While some may see this as a circus act ready-made for Jerry Springer or Sally Jesse Raphael, this case is actually an important and serious battle over the fundamental constitutional right of free expression.
Last August, Grand Imperial Wizard Barry Black concluded a KKK rally by igniting a large cross, filling the rural sky of Carroll County with the all-too-familiar smoke and flames of the Klan's racial hatred. For doing this, Black was arrested under a Virginia law that makes it a felony to burn a cross in view of the public.
Barry Black deserves our contempt for his membership in the KKK in general and for burning a cross in particular. For every racist idea he and the KKK express, there ought to be a thousand others expressed in opposition. And, we can only hope that in the end the good expression--that is, the expression promoting tolerance and racial equality--will enlighten us, while the expression of racists will go ignored.
In many ways, this is the faith our founders had in the First Amendment--that if we let everyone speak, right or wrong, we will be made sufficiently wise by the exposure to distinguish the good from the bad. Who knows, maybe the ideas promoted by good speech are made more obvious by their juxtaposition to the bad?
Also, think of the alternative to letting everyone express their opinions. An official organ of the government overseen by politicians would have to determine the acceptability of all expression. It would be a kind of taste police to let us know who is allowed to speak and what they are allowed to say.
Imagine if we had had such a group in the past, with the power to place certain topics and viewpoints off limits to the rest of us. Would not its choices for censorship have varied dramatically depending on geography or the political winds of the time? Would it have operated by majority vote?
If that were the case, we may never have had the suffrage movement, for when it began, the government of the United States--indeed, the majority of the population--was vehemently opposed to it. The civil rights movement of the late fifties and early sixties would surely have been censored by almost any government-appointed body, at least at first. It was the expression--the demonstrations and marches--that led to the passage of new civil rights laws, not the other way around. Even the abolitionists might not have survived a censorship committee in 1840, certainly not in all parts of the country.
Shared by all these movements was the constitutional right to express and convey ideas that began as unpopular, minority viewpoints but later became hallmarks of progress for our nation. Shared by the KKK and its progeny has been the constitutional right to express and convey ideas that began as unpopular, minority viewpoints and stayed that way.
The KKK's right to burn a cross (so long as it is on private property and with the permission of the owner) is the same right that all of us have to express our views. That right of free expression has served us well as a nation and deserves to be defended vigorously.
That David Baugh, an African-American attorney, agreed to take this case further illustrates this point. Baugh does not like the KKK or anything it stands for. But he understands that his own constitutional rights are tied to Barry Black's, and that Black's loss of free expression could lead to his loss of free expression, too.
Our right to state our ideas and opinions is so taken for granted that we sometimes forget how essential it is to our culture, how it defines us as a people, and how it has provided the original fuel for our vitality as a nation. We should all be concerned by the slightest threat to free expression. And like David Baugh and the ACLU, we ought to try to do something about it when that happens.