Cross burning is a typically, if not uniquely American type of “speech”. It’s the quintessential expression of hatred of African-Americans. The usual culprits are members of the Ku Klux Klan or KKK (and copycats). Historically, cross burning has been a signal of impending violence and terror. It was often a morbid prelude to lynchings or other acts of racist violence.
Nowadays, cross burnings are relatively rare, and intended to intimidate rather than signal the first step in actual violence. Nevertheless, given the history of cross burning, present-day occurrences understandably continue to instill a real sensation of fear and panic in the intended targets. Which is of course the intention.
The question is: should cross burning be considered as a form of speech that merits the protection of the freedom of speech (the First Amendment in the U.S.), or should it rather be an example of hate speech that can and should be made illegal?
If we focus on the U.S. for the moment, then the leading Supreme Court case is Virginia v Black. This case deals with 2 different criminal cases of people convicted for cross burning. In one case, an argument escalated and two defendants burned a cross in the front yard of their African-American neighbor. The other case involved a cross being burned in the garden of a member of the KKK during a private KKK “party”. The burning cross, however, could be seen by the general public.
Virgina v Black protects cross burning as a form of free speech, but also provides the possibility to make it illegal under certain circumstances (as we’ve seen many times before in this blog series on limiting freedom of speech, the circumstances are always important). And, according to Virgina v Black, the circumstances which would make it possible to restrict freedom of speech in the case of cross burning are not limited to those which can normally restrict freedom of speech in other cases. Speech acts that produce an imminent danger of physical violence, acts that result in reckless endangerment (in this case the risk that the act evolves into an arson attack), or speech acts that lead to trespassing are not protected by the First Amendment. Physical violence, arson and trespassing are illegal, and the fact that they are combined with a speech act doesn’t make them legal. If a speech act is combined with such illegal acts, or is likely to lead to such acts, then the speech acts are not protected by the right to free speech.
According to Virgina v Black, the circumstances which can make cross burning illegal go beyond this and include the intent of the speaker to intimidate and terrorize specific and identifiable persons, even if these persons are not in immediate physical danger. And cross burnings today usually doesn’t result in physical danger.
Now, you could say that cross burning is by definition intended to intimidate, but that’s not the case. Not all cross burnings are intended to intimidate – take the example of the KKK party cited above – and not all cross burnings are equally intimidating. It depends on the circumstances in which the cross burning takes place, and on the fact if it is clearly targeted against certain individuals. If the cross burning takes place close to the homes of African-Americans, and are part of a long chain of intimidation and racist incidents, then they are more intimidating than in other cases. And more intimidating means a higher risk that the rights of the targets will be violated. The African-Americans may feel forced to move, which violates their right to freely choose their residence. They may feel that it is necessary to keep their children away from school, which is a violation of their right to education, etc. In such cases, the right to free speech of the KKK members should obviously be restricted for the benefit of the rights of their targets. But in other cases, they may be allowed to wallow in their silly hobby.
I think Virginia v Black strikes the right balance. For another Supreme Court case on cross burning, see here.