Virginia ACLU represents Klansman who set fire to a cross in Carroll CountyThe U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments tomorrow morning in a case that will decide if a Virginia law banning the burning of crosses violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment. Last year, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional, but the state Attorney General asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision.
In the case, lawyers for the ACLU of Virginia represent Barry Black, who in 1998 was charged with a felony for setting fire to a cross at a Ku Klux Klan rally on a farm in rural Carro ll County. Although the owner of the farm permitted the cross burning, the police immediately arrested Black. He was later convicted of the cross-burning crime and fined $2,500. That conviction was upheld by the Virginia Court of Appeals in 2000, before being reversed by the Virginia Supreme Court.
Virginia's law prohibits cross-burning with the intent to intimidate another person in places viewable by the public. The law assumes that the act of burning a cross is always meant to intimidate
"As detestable as cross-burning is," said ACLU of Virginia executive director, "it is still a way of conveying a message, which means that it -- like burning the flag or expressing any other unpopular idea-- is protected by the First Amendment."
"This is the kind of case that almost no one likes," added Willis, "but it is also the kind of case that can be used to reaffirm our basic constitutional principles. We hope that the U.S. Supreme Court has taken this case in order to clarify and refine its interpretation of free speech, not to weaken it."
Rodney Smolla, a University of Richmond law professor, will argue the case for the ACLU of Virginia. David Baugh, who practices criminal law in Richmond, and ACLU of Virginia legal director Rebecca Glenberg also represent Mr. Black for the ACLU.
Lawyers representing two teenagers who burned a cross in Virginia Beach will also appear with Mr. Smolla before the Court tomorrow, but will not be presenting arguments. The Virginia Supreme Court joined the Virginia Beach case with the ACLU case because both rely on similar arguments and appeared before the Court about the same time.
Contacts: Kent Willis or Rebecca Glenberg, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022 Rodney Smolla, 804-289-8197