The Virginia Court of Appeals took on the case of a man convicted of violating a state law prohibiting displaying a noose with the intent to intimidate, in violation of Va. Code § 18.2-423.2. Actually, Jack Turner did a bit more than that. The noose was hanging from a tree on his property and was on the neck of a dummy appearing to portray a black man. However, the law only prohibits a citizen from displaying a noose in a public place, and this was, his lawyers argued, Constitution-protected speech on private property. Turner was appealing his sentence of five years in prison (all but six months were suspended).
No doubt about it, this was “hate speech”; Turner admitted it. After his African American neighbor reported the display to police, who questioned him about his intent, Turner initially said that the hanging black dummy was “a scarecrow.” When it was pointed out that he had no garden, Turner elaborated by explaining that he was a racist, and “did not like niggers.”
At the trial, one of Turner’s African American neighbors testified that after seeing the hanging dummy he was especially upset when he saw the dummy because nine African-Americans had been killed in the Charleston South Carolina church shooting earlier in the same day. The neighbor’s wife testified that she now feared for her family’s safety. After the incident, the parents no longer allowed their sons to walk past Turner’s house, because, they said, they didn’t know what else a man who hanged such a warning was capable of doing. For his part after he was forced to remove the hanging black effigy, Turner continuously hung a Confederate flag in a window facing his neighbor’s home. Great neighbor.
Hate speech, however, is still protected speech. As the Supreme Court confirmed last session, to be legally prohibited hate speech must constitute a “true threat,” meaning that a speaker means to communicate “a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals,” even where the speaker does not “intend to carry out the threat.” Prohibitions of true threats protect individuals from “fear of violence and from the disruption that fear engenders.”
The Court of Appeals didn’t have to exert itself to find that when a man hangs a noose with a black figure dangling from it within view of his African-American neighbors’ house, it indeed constitutes a “true threat.” The Court found the display, after reviewing the history of lynchings in Virginia and the powerful symbolism carried by Turner’s noose, comparable to a burning cross, Continue reading