WASHINGTON. — Washington--In the U.S. Supreme Court today an extremely important argument will take place about one of the most wrenching issues of our time: freedom of expression.
Can a city, or any unit of government, outlaw expressions of hatred, such as cross burnings and swastika paintings, without violating the haters' First Amendment protections of free speech?
That is the broad philosophical, constitutional question. The real-world issue is whether the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, can prosecute a white teen-ager who burned a cross on the lawn of the only black family in a middle-class neighborhood under an ordinance designed to deter what some see as a rise in hate crimes across America.
Tom Foley, the Ramsey County attorney, will be arguing today that the First Amendment was never intended to protect Robert A. Viktora, now 18, who in the wee hours of June 21, 1990, burned a cross on the lawn of the Russell Jones family, the only black household of the Mounds Park community.
''This act was done in the context not of a political ideal, but in the context that the targeted family would understand what is universally understood -- that cross-burning is a precursor to violence,'' Mr. Foley says.
Mr. Viktora's lawyers will argue that burning crosses is constitutionally protected ''freedom of expression,'' and that the St. Paul statute is overly broad and as should be thrown out, and Mr. Viktora set free.
Let me point out that I defended the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, in the 1970s, and of Klansmen to march in the streets of the District of Columbia -- however offensive these displays of hate were to Jews and African Americans. I accept the reasoning of the Seventh Circuit of Appeals that ''There is room under the First Amendment for the government to protect targeted listeners from offensive speech, but only when the speaker intrudes on the privacy of the home, or a captive audience cannot practically avoid exposure.''
The First Amendment must shelter Nazis, Klansmen or any other group that marches, parades, even burns crosses in ''neutral'' territory. But it is idiocy to even entertain the notion that the First Amendment protects bigots who climb the fence to a family's private property and burn a cross, which is an act of terrorism.
Neo-Nazis are free to assemble on campuses and throw verbal slurs at Jews, but the Constitution does not protect those who invade a dormitory and plant swastikas on the doors of the rooms occupied by Jewish men and women.
The problem with the St. Paul ordinance, as the Minnesota Supreme Court conceded in upholding it, is that it is too nTC exuberant in trying to exorcise racial and religious bigotry from American life. It says:
''Whoever places on public or private property a symbol, object, appellation, characterization or graffiti, including, but not limited to, a burning cross or Nazi swastika, which one knows or has reasonable ground to know, arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender commits disorderly conduct and shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.''
The St. Paul lawmakers should have struck that word ''public.'' But ''public'' is a word that is not applicable to the case of Mr. Viktora, who took his act of hatred to a private place in the frightening hours of darkness.
The Minnesota Supreme Court refused to clear him on the technical ground that the ordinance was too broadly worded. The question is whether this U.S. Supreme Court will also reject that technicality and say resoundingly that Americans who carry their racist and other hatreds onto the property, into the dormitories, of their proposed victims can find no legal shelter in any part of the U.S. Constitution.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.