Virginia v. Black

Respondents were convicted separately of violating a Virginia statute that makes it a felony “for any person . . ., with the intent of intimidating any person or group . . . , to burn a cross on the property of another, a highway or other public place,” and specifies that “[a]ny such burning . . . shall be prima facie evidence of an intent to intimidate a person or group.” When respondent Black objected on First Amendment grounds to his trial court’s jury instruction that cross burning by itself is sufficient evidence from which the required “intent to intimidate” could be inferred, the prosecutor responded that the instruction was taken straight out of the Virginia Model Instructions. Respondent O’Mara pleaded guilty to charges of violating the statute, but reserved the right to challenge its constitutionality. At respondent Elliott’s trial, the judge instructed the jury as to what the Commonwealth had to prove, but did not give an instruction on the meaning of the word “intimidate,” nor on the statute’s prima facie evidence provision. Consolidating all three cases, the Virginia Supreme Court held that the crossburning statute is unconstitutional on its face; that it is analytically indistinguishable from the ordinance found unconstitutional in R. A. V. v. St. Paul, 505 U. S. 377; that it discriminates on the basis of content and viewpoint since it selectively chooses only cross burning because of its distinctive message; and that the prima facie evidence provision renders the statute overbroad because the enhanced probability of prosecution under the statute chills the expression of protected speech.

Held: The judgment is affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded. 262 Va. 764, 553 S. E. 2d 738, affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.

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