Episode 9: R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul

In the summer of 1990, several teenagers set fire to a crudely-made cross on the lawn of an African American family in St. Paul, Minnesota. One of those teenagers, known in court documents as R.A.V. because he was a juvenile, was prosecuted under a local city ordinance that prohibited the use of symbols known to around anger, alarm, or resentment on the basis of race. 

R.A.V. appealed, arguing that the St. Paul ordinance, by banning his expressive conduct, violated the First Amendment. He lost in the Minnesota Supreme Court, which ruled that because the ordinance only prohibited so-called "fighting words," it did not violate the free speech clause.

But the U.S. Supreme Court felt differently. Though there is an exception to the First Amendment for "fighting words," the St. Paul ordinance went too far. The Court was unanimous in their judgment, but their reasoning was sharply divided on the question of whether the government has constitutional power to ban so-called "hate speech."

Question:  Is a city ordinance that bans expressive conduct which "arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender," overly broad or impermissibly content-based in violation of the First Amendment free speech clause?

Answer: Yes.


  • Antonin Scalia (majority opinion)
  • William Rehnquist
  • Anthony Kennedy
  • David Souter
  • Clarence Thomas 
  • Byron White (concurring in judgment)
  • Sandra Day O'Connor (concurring in judgment)
  • Harry Blackmun (concurring in judgment)
  • John Paul Stevens (concurring in judgment)