R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul

Following is the case brief for R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377 (1992)

Case Summary of R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul:

  • R.A.V. and other teenagers burned a cross on an African-American family’s lawn.
  • R.A.V. was charged under St. Paul’s hate-crime ordinance, and he challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance.
  • The trial court found the ordinance violative of the First Amendment.
  • The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Minnesota Supreme Court.  It held that the ordinance was a facially unconstitutional content-based regulation of speech in violation of the First Amendment.

R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

A number of teenagers burned a wooden cross, made out of chair legs, on an African-American family’s lawn.  The police charged R.A.V., one of the teenagers involved, with the St. Paul, Minnesota, Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance, a type of hate-crime ordinance.  The ordinance makes it a misdemeanor to display a symbol that one knows “arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender.”  R.A.V. challenged the hate-crime ordinance on constitutional grounds.

Procedural History:

  • The trial court dismissed the hate-crime charge, finding it overbroad and impermissibly content based.
  • The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the trial court. It held that other cases limited the hate-crime ordinance to “fighting words,” which are not protected by the First Amendment.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Did St. Paul’s hate-crime ordinance violate the First Amendment as a content-based regulation of speech?  Yes.


The decision of the Supreme Court of Minnesota is reversed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

A law that prohibits only certain content but permits others, thereby demonstrating content discrimination, is facially unconstitutional.


Certain categories of speech, such as obscenity, defamation, and fighting words, may be regulated because of their content.  However, a law is facially unconstitutional if it “takes sides” as to which content is permissible.  In fact, St. Paul’s ordinance is viewpoint discrimination.  The law prohibits speech or displays against odious racial epithets, but does not prohibit odious epithets against homosexuals or a certain political viewpoint.  Therefore, the law is invalid.  The First Amendment does not allow silencing speech on the basis of its content.

Concurring Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (White):

The Minnesota Supreme Court’s decision should be reversed, but not for the reasons advanced by the Court.  The majority opinion – making a decision outside of the issues presented to the Court, without any briefing, and in contravention of established precedent – rests on reasoning that is transparently wrong.  This case can be decided on well-developed, well-established First Amendment precedent, that is, that the ordinance is overbroad.  The ordinance reaches unprotected speech, but also prohibits expression that – however repugnant – is protected by the First Amendment.

Concurring Opinion (Blackmun):

The majority opinion may serve as precedent or it may not, but outcomes would be disheartening.  The opinion turns logic on its head.  So, as precedent, it is of poor value.  If it is ignored as an aberration, however, then it will reveal that the majority could not avoid the temptation to attack “politically correct speech,” which is not an issue presented in this case.

Concurring Opinion (Stevens):

Justice White’s analysis that the ordinance is overbroad is the correct analysis.  However, both the majority and Justice White should not adhere so closely to absolute principles, because Court precedent has not adhered to absolute principles in this area of the law.


R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul is significant because it provided challenges to hate-crime laws that were beginning to emerge at the time.  Virginia v. Black, a 2003 Court decision, however, limited R.A.V. by finding that a Virginia statute outlawing cross burning done with the intent to intimidate was constitutional.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments