Beyond the Burning Cross: A Landmark Case of Race, Censorship, and the First Amendment

Beyond the Burning Cross: A Landmark Case of Race, Censorship, and the First Amendment

by Edward J. Cleary
     
 

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Does our abhorrence of racism allow us to ban certain forms of speech? This is the simple yet subversive question that Edward J. Cleary posed to the U.S. Supreme Court when, in 1991, he defended a white student who had burned a cross on a black family's lawn in St. Paul, Minnesota, violating a local ordinance against hate crimes. As a progressive, Cleary detested

Overview

Does our abhorrence of racism allow us to ban certain forms of speech? This is the simple yet subversive question that Edward J. Cleary posed to the U.S. Supreme Court when, in 1991, he defended a white student who had burned a cross on a black family's lawn in St. Paul, Minnesota, violating a local ordinance against hate crimes. As a progressive, Cleary detested everything his client stood for. But in this compelling argued book he describes how he overturned the St. Paul ordinance—and convinced the Court to rule that "burning a cross is reprehensible. But St. Paul has sufficient means...to prevent such behavior without adding the First Amendment to the fire."
   As Cleary retraces his path from St. Paul to the courtroom in Washington, he juxtaposes the stories of previous First Amendment cases with a personal account of the unlikely alliances (with both the A.C.L.U. and a group engaged in defending the Ku Klux Klan) and antagonisms that grew out of the case. ULtimately, he shows us why a law that bands expressions of racism is as dangerous as a law that bans protests against those expressions. In Beyond the Burning Cross, Leary has given us an unparalleled insider's report of a watershed event in constitutional history that is as absorbing as any thriller.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This is a worthy, instructive account of a free speech case that caused deep rifts in America's progressive firmament. On June 21, 1990, a cross was burned on the lawn of a black family, Russell and Laura Jones and their five children, who had recently moved into a mostly white working-class neighborhood in St. Paul, Minn. One suspect pleaded guilty; the other defendant, 17-year-old Robert Anthony Viktora, was not charged for his conduct under statutes prohibiting threats but under a little-used ordinance targeting motivation (prohibiting symbols aimed at provoking racial, religious and other types of animosity). Public defender Cleary, while finding his client's act abhorrent, considered that the statute had implications threatening to First Amendment rights, and appealed. Here he offers a useful minihistory of free speech doctrine and, in an account that should absorb lawyers and general readers alike, describes the path of the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Included are comments of law professors and liberal groups who were critical of Cleary's position. But in June 1992, the Court invalidated the ordinance (9-0), and Cleary muses that laws criminalizing bigoted motivation are dangerous and not useful in fighting prejudice. (Sept.)
Library Journal
A burning cross, placed on the lawn of a black family living in a white neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, led to the enactment of a sweeping "hate crimes" ordinance. Under this regulation's language, a youth known as R.A.V. and another were prosecuted. But, as Nat Hentoff observes in the introduction, "it was the First Amendment, not cross-burning, that powered this case." Lawyer Cleary represented R.A.V. from the beginning to the arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court, whose 1992 decision was truly a victory of the First Amendment. Ultimately, this case underscores the troubling conflict between our ideas of civil rights and civil liberties. Cleary's book certainly achieves its most basic purpose, telling the story of one conflict resolved in the courts. Yet like Anthony Lewis's classic Gideon's Trumpet, it does much more than that, giving readers the opportunity to follow the course of law in the making. Highly recommended.-Jerry E. Stephens, U.S. Court of Appeals Lib., Oklahoma City
Aaron Cohen
St. Paul attorney Cleary defended a juvenile--known by his initials, R. A. V.--convicted of burning a cross on a black family's lawn. Although Cleary detested the act and felt his client should be prosecuted, he objected to the ordinance under which R. A. V. was convicted, one of many throughout the country that proscribed hate speech. "To enforce a notion of civility to the point of forbidding unpopular minority expression," Cleary argues, "is to underestimate the citizens of this country at the cost of our basic right of self-expression." Cleary describes the legal case well, citing historical precedents in terms that should intrigue any interested reader and also revealing the messy internal politics of such organizations as the American Civil Liberties Union. Adding appeal is the fact that this story of an unknown lawyer facing the Supreme Court almost single-handedly and winning is a classic saga of the underdog.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307801265
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
07/20/2011
Sold by:
Random House
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
336
File size:
2 MB

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