Another burning issue

June 17, 1991

In an understandable attempt to combat racial and religious ** intolerance, many communities have passed laws to suppress offensive expressions of hatred. While well-intentioned, such laws only buy unnecessary trouble.

A case in point involves the prosecution of a young man in St. Paul, Minn. who burned a cross on the lawn of a black family.

The youth was convicted of violating a city law which makes it a crime to display any signs or symbols that express animus on the basis of race, religion or gender. The young man is asking the Supreme Court to overturn his conviction on the ground that his free speech was violated, and the court agreed to hear the case.

But why, we wonder, didn't the authorities in St. Paul simply prosecute the offender under any number of statutes which surely make it a crime to trespass on other peoples' property and start fires -- no matter whether the fire is made of crosses, old newspapers, or, for that matter, charcoal in a grill. There is scarcely any question that communities have the power to prohibit and punish such conduct, and judges may consider malevolent intent in fixing sentence.

But as an abstract proposition, if a person has a constitutional right to burn a flag, no matter how unpopular the act may be, then it follows that a person has a right to burn a cross -- so long as no other laws are violated in the process.

We hope the Supreme Court will uphold the right of free speech in another unpopular context. Then, if the St. Paul authorities want to prosecute the young man for illegally starting fires on other peoples' property, we say, throw the book at 'im.

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