Virginia v. Black

Virginia v. Black
Argued December 11, 2002
Decided April 7, 2003
Full case name Virginia v. Barry Elton Black, Richard J. Elliott, and Jonathan Oímara
Citations 538 U.S. 343 (more)
123 S.Ct. 1536, 155 L. Ed. 2d 535 (2003)
Argument Oral argument
Prior history On writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of Virginia. Black v. Commonwealth, 262 Va. 764, 553 S.E.2d 738 (2001)
Subsequent history Appeal after remand at Elliott v. Commonwealth, 267 Va. 464, 593 S.E.2d 263 (2004)
Virginia's statute against cross burning is unconstitutional because it places the burden of proof on the defendant to demonstrate that he or she did not intend the cross burning as intimidation.
Court membership
Chief Justice
William Rehnquist
Associate Justices
John P. Stevens · Sandra Day O'Connor
Antonin Scalia · Anthony Kennedy
David Souter · Clarence Thomas
Ruth Bader Ginsburg · Stephen Breyer
Case opinions
Majority O'Connor (parts I, II, III), joined by Rehnquist, Stevens, Scalia, Breyer
Concurrence O'Connor (parts IV, V), joined by Rehnquist, Stevens, Breyer
Concurrence Stevens
Concur/dissent Scalia, joined by Thomas (parts I, II)
Concur/dissent Souter, joined by Kennedy, Ginsburg
Dissent Thomas
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend I

Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 (2003), is 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, 315 U.S. 568 (1942), New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), 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.

On May 2, 1998 Richard Elliot and Jonathan O'Meara attempted to light a cross on the property of Elliot's neighbor (who was black) in Virginia Beach, Virginia. On August 22, 1998 Barry Black held a Ku Klux Klan rally on private property and with the consent of the owner in Carroll County, Virginia. A neighbor and the county sheriff witnessed the event and heard attendees make many negative comments concerning blacks. During the rally a cross was lit. Black was arrested and charged with violating a Virginia statute outlawing cross burnings. All defendants were found guilty. Black's and Elliot/O'Meara's cases were combined upon appeal and reached the U.S. Supreme Court during the Fall 2002 session. [1]


Justice Sandra Day O'Connor delivered the opinion stating, "a state, consistent with the First Amendment, may ban cross burning carried out with the intent to intimidate." In so doing, the Court considered the speech to be constitutionally unprotected "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."

In Virginia v. Black the Court found that Virginia's statute against cross burning is unconstitutional with respect to the text in the statute that states "Any such burning of a cross shall be prima facie evidence of an intent to intimidate a person or group of persons." This text in particular was found to be unconstitutional as it violates the Fourteenth Amendment insofar as it provides the presumption, that the act of cross burning is evidence of the intent to intimidate. In Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U.S. 510, 99 S. Ct. 2450, 61 L. Ed. 2d 39 (1979), the Court held when a jury is instructed in such a manner where;

the law presumes a person intends the ordinary consequences of his voluntary acts, [the jury] may have interpreted the presumption as conclusive or as shifting the burden of persuasion, and because either interpretation would have violated the Fourteenth Amendment's requirement that the state prove every element of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt, the instruction given was unconstitutional.

In essence, the Fourteenth Amendment prevents a jury instruction when that instruction includes: a presumption, that shifts the burden of proof with regards to an essential element of the crime away from the state and onto the defendant, in a criminal trial. Thus, the Fourteenth Amendment was violated by the text of the statute where the intent to intimidate was presumed from the action of cross burning.

However, the Court found the statute constitutional with regards to the language limiting cross burning with the intent to intimidate as a valid conduct restriction as the regulation was: within the constitutional power of the government, where the conduct regulation furthers an important government interest and such government interest is unrelated to the suppression of speech, and the incidental burden (secondary effect) on speech is no greater than necessary.[2] By structuring the language of the statute to restrict conduct only with the intent to intimidate, the Virginia legislature satisfied all three prongs of the O'Brien test. The limitation of the conduct was within the constitutional power of the government based the First Amendment exception known as the "true threats" doctrine. The conduct restriction furthered an important government interest that was unrelated to the suppression of speech, because, "cross burning done with the intent to intimidate has a long and pernicious history as a signal of impending violence." Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343, 123 S. Ct. 1536, 1539, 155 L. Ed. 2d 535 (2003). Finally, the secondary effect on speech was no greater than necessary as it restricted the conduct only when accompanied by the intent to intimidate.

It is important to distinguish the Virginia statute from a similar statute which was held facially unconstitutional for overbreadth in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, Minn., 505 U.S. 377, 112 S. Ct. 2538, 120 L. Ed. 2d 305 (1992).


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."

See also


  1. VIRGINIA V. BLACK (01-1107) 538 U.S. 343 (2003)
  2. United States v. O'Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968).
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