Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

Whether an ordinance punishing such action that “arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, or gender” violates the First Amendment.


The Supreme Court found the ordinance unconstitutional, overruling the Minnesota State Supreme Court.


In mid-1990, a white juvenile in St. Paul was arrested for burning a cross inside the fenced yard of a black family. The juvenile was charged with violating St. Paul's Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance, which prohibited the placement of any symbol on public or private property that aroused anger in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, or gender. The juvenile moved to dismiss this charge, claiming that it was overbroad and impermissibly content-based under the First Amendment. The trial court granted this motion. The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed, holding that the ordinance prohibited only “fighting words,” which, since the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942), had been deemed unworthy of any First Amendment protection.

Importance of Case

The Court established that even classes of unconstitutional speech, like “fighting words,” cannot be regulated based on content or viewpoint. The Supreme Court held that the ordinance was impermissibly content-based because it only prohibited fighting words on the basis of “race, color, creed religion, or gender” and not other topics like “political affiliation” or “union membership.” The Court also held that the statute was impermissibly viewpoint-based. Under the ordinance: “One could hold up a sign saying, for example, that all ‘anti-Catholic bigots’ are misbegotten; but not that all ‘papists’ are[.]”

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