VIRGINIA v. BLACK
- Syllabus [HTML] [PDF]
- Opinion, O’Connor [HTML] [PDF]
- Concurrence, Stevens [HTML] [PDF]
- Dissent, Thomas [HTML] [PDF]
- CDInPart, Scalia [HTML] [PDF]
- CDInPart, Souter [HTML] [PDF]
VIRGINIA v. BLACK et al.
certiorari to the supreme court of virginia
Respondents were convicted separately of violating a Virginia statute that makes it a felony “for any person … , with the intent of intimidating any person or group … , to burn … a cross on the property of another, a highway or other public place,” and specifies that “[a]ny such burning … shall be prima facie evidence of an intent to intimidate a person or group.” When respondent Black objected on First Amendment grounds to his trial court’s jury instruction that cross burning by itself is sufficient evidence from which the required “intent to intimidate” could be inferred, the prosecutor responded that the instruction was taken straight out of the Virginia Model Instructions. Respondent O’Mara pleaded guilty to charges of violating the statute, but reserved the right to challenge its constitutionality. At respondent Elliott’s trial, the judge instructed the jury as to what the Commonwealth had to prove, but did not give an instruction on the meaning of the word “intimidate,” nor on the statute’s prima facie evidence provision. Consolidating all three cases, the Virginia Supreme Court held that the cross-burning statute is unconstitutional on its face; that it is analytically indistinguishable from the ordinance found unconstitutional in R. A. V. v. St. Paul, 505 U. S. 377; that it discriminates on the basis of content and viewpoint since it selectively chooses only cross burning because of its distinctive message; and that the prima facie evidence provision renders the statute overbroad because the enhanced probability of prosecution under the statute chills the expression of protected speech.
Held : The judgment is affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.
262 Va. 764, 553 S. E. 2d 738, affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.
Justice O’Connor delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, and III, concluding that a State, consistent with the First Amendment, may ban cross burning carried out with the intent to intimidate. Pp. 6–17.
(a) Burning a cross in the United States is inextricably intertwined with the history of the Ku Klux Klan, which, following its formation in 1866, imposed a reign of terror throughout the South, whipping, threatening, and murdering blacks, southern whites who disagreed with the Klan, and “carpetbagger” northern whites. The Klan has often used cross burnings as a tool of intimidation and a threat of impending violence, although such burnings have also remained potent symbols of shared group identity and ideology, serving as a central feature of Klan gatherings. To this day, however, regardless of whether the message is a political one or is also meant to intimidate, the burning of a cross is a “symbol of hate.” Capitol Square Review and Advisory Bd. v. Pinette, 515 U. S. 753. While cross burning does not inevitably convey a message of intimidation, often the cross burner intends that the recipients of the message fear for their lives. And when a cross burning is used to intimidate, few if any messages are more powerful. Pp. 6–11.
(b) The protections the First Amendment affords speech and expressive conduct are not absolute. This Court has long recognized that the government may regulate certain categories of expression consistent with the Constitution. See, e.g. , Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U. S. 568. For example, the First Amendment permits a State to ban “true threats,” e.g., Watts v. United States, 394 U. S. 705 (per curiam), which encompass those statements where the 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, see, e.g., id., at 708. The speaker need not actually intend to carry out the threat. Rather, a prohibition on true threats protects individuals from the fear of violence and the disruption that fear engenders, as well as from the possibility that the threatened violence will occur. R. A. V., supra, at 388. Intimidation in the constitutionally proscribable sense of the word is a type of true threat, where a speaker directs a threat to a person or group of persons with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death. Respondents do not contest that some cross burnings fit within this meaning of intimidating speech, and rightly so. As the history of cross burning in this country shows, that act is often intimidating, intended to create a pervasive fear in victims that they are a target of violence. Pp. 11–14.
(c) The First Amendment permits Virginia to outlaw cross burnings done with the intent to intimidate because burning a cross is a particularly virulent form of intimidation. Instead of prohibiting all intimidating messages, Virginia may choose to regulate this subset of intimidating messages in light of cross burning’s long and pernicious history as a signal of impending violence. A ban on cross burning carried out with the intent to intimidate is fully consistent with this Court’s holding in R. A. V. Contrary to the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling, R. A. V. did not hold that the First Amendment prohibits all forms of content-based discrimination within a proscribable area of speech. Rather, the Court specifically stated that a particular type of content discrimination does not violate the First Amendment when the basis for it consists entirely of the very reason its entire class of speech is proscribable. 505 U. S., at 388. For example, it is permissible to prohibit only that obscenity that is most patently offensive in its prurience —i.e., that which involves the most lascivious displays of sexual activity. Ibid. Similarly, Virginia’s statute does not run afoul of the First Amendment insofar as it bans cross burning with intent to intimidate. Unlike the statute at issue in R. A. V. , the Virginia statute does not single out for opprobrium only that speech directed toward “one of the specified disfavored topics.” Id., at 391. It does not matter whether an individual burns a cross with intent to intimidate because of the victim’s race, gender, or religion, or because of the victim’s “political affiliation, union membership, or homosexuality.” Ibid. Thus, just as a State may regulate only that obscenity which is the most obscene due to its prurient content, so too may a State choose to prohibit only those forms of intimidation that are most likely to inspire fear of bodily harm. Pp. 14–17.
Justice O’Connor , joined by The Chief Justice, Justice Stevens , and Justice Breyer , concluded in Parts IV and V that the Virginia statute’s prima facie evidence provision, as interpreted through the jury instruction given in respondent Black’s case and as applied therein, is unconstitutional on its face. Because the instruction is the same as the Commonwealth’s Model Jury Instruction, and because the Virginia Supreme Court had the opportunity to expressly disavow it, the instruction’s construction of the prima facie provision is as binding on this Court as if its precise words had been written into the statute. E.g., Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U. S. 1. As construed by the instruction, the prima facie provision strips away the very reason why a State may ban cross burning with the intent to intimidate. The provision permits a jury to convict in every cross burning case in which defendants exercise their constitutional right not to put on a defense. And even where a defendant like Black presents a defense, the provision makes it more likely that the jury will find an intent to intimidate regardless of the particular facts of the case. It permits the Commonwealth to arrest, prosecute, and convict a person based solely on the fact of cross burning itself. As so interpreted, it would create an unacceptable risk of the suppression of ideas. E.g., Secretary of State of Md. v. Joseph H. Munson Co., 467 U. S. 947, n. 13. The act of burning a cross may mean that a person is engaging in constitutionally proscribable intimidation, or it may mean only that the person is engaged in core political speech. The prima facie evidence provision blurs the line between these meanings, ignoring all of the contextual factors that are necessary to decide whether a particular cross burning is intended to intimidate. The First Amendment does not permit such a shortcut. Thus, Black’s conviction cannot stand, and the judgment as to him is affirmed. Conversely, Elliott’s jury did not receive any instruction on the prima facie provision, and the provision was not an issue in O’Mara’s case because he pleaded guilty. The possibility that the provision is severable, and if so, whether Elliott and O’Mara could be retried under the statute, is left open. Also left open is the theoretical possibility that, on remand, the Virginia Supreme Court could interpret the prima facie provision in a manner that would avoid the constitutional objections described above. Pp. 17–22.
Justice Scalia agreed that this Court should vacate and remand the judgment of the Virginia Supreme Court with respect to respondents Elliott and O’Mara so that that court can have an opportunity authoritatively to construe the cross-burning statute’s prima-facie-evidence provision. Pp. 1, 12.
Justice Souter , joined by Justice Kennedy and Justice Ginsburg , concluded that the Virginia statute is unconstitutional and cannot be saved by any exception under R. A. V. v. St. Paul, 505 U. S. 377, and therefore concurred in the Court’s judgment insofar as it affirms the invalidation of respondent Black’s conviction. Pp. 1, 8.
O’Connor, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, and III, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Stevens, Scalia , and Breyer, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Parts IV and V, in which Rehnquist, C. J, and Stevens and Breyer, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed a concurring opinion. Scalia, J., filed an opinion concurring in part, concurring in the judgment in part, and dissenting in part, in which Thomas, J., joined as to Parts I and II. Souter, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part, in which Kennedy and Ginsburg, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a dissenting opinion.
VIRGINIA, PETITIONER v. BARRY ELTON BLACK,
RICHARD J. ELLIOTT, and JONATHAN O’MARA
on writ of certiorari to the supreme court of virginia
Justice Scalia , with whom Justice Thomas joins as to Parts I and II, concurring in part, concurring in the judgment in part, and dissenting in part.
I agree with the Court that, under our decision in R. A. V. v. St. Paul, 505 U. S. 377 (1992) , a State may, without infringing the First Amendment, prohibit cross burning carried out with the intent to intimidate. Accordingly, I join Parts I–III of the Court’s opinion. I also agree that we should vacate and remand the judgment of the Virginia Supreme Court so that that Court can have an opportunity authoritatively to construe the prima-facie-evidence provision of Va. Code Ann. §18.2–423 (1996). I write separately, however, to describe what I believe to be the correct interpretation of §18.2–423, and to explain why I believe there is no justification for the plurality’s apparent decision to invalidate that provision on its face.
Section 18.2–423 provides that the burning of a cross in public view “shall be prima facie evidence of an intent to intimidate.” In order to determine whether this component of the statute violates the Constitution, it is necessary, first, to establish precisely what the presentation of prima facie evidence accomplishes.
Typically, “prima facie evidence” is defined as:
“Such evidence as, in the judgment of the law, is sufficient to establish a given fact … and which if not rebutted or contradicted, will remain sufficient. [Such evidence], if unexplained or uncontradicted, is sufficient to sustain a judgment in favor of the issue which it supports, but [it] may be contradicted by other evidence.” Black’s Law Dictionary 1190 (6th ed. 1990).
The Virginia Supreme Court has, in prior cases, embraced this canonical understanding of the pivotal statutory language. E.g., Babbitt v. Miller , 192 Va. 372, 379–380, 64 S. E. 2d 718, 722 (1951) (“ Prima facie evidence is evidence which on its first appearance is sufficient to raise a presumption of fact or establish the fact in question unless rebutted”). For example, in Nance v. Commonwealth , 203 Va. 428, 124 S. E. 2d 900 (1962), the Virginia Supreme Court interpreted a law of the Commonwealth that (1) prohibited the possession of certain “burglarious” tools “with intent to commit burglary, robbery, or larceny … ,” and (2) provided that “[t]he possession of such burglarious tools … shall be prima facie evidence of an intent to commit burglary, robbery or larceny.” Va. Code Ann. §18.1–87 (1960). The court explained that the prima-facie-evidence provision “cuts off no defense nor interposes any obstacle to a contest of the facts, and ‘relieves neither the court nor the jury of the duty to determine all of the questions of fact from the weight of the whole evidence.’ ” Nance v. Commonwealth , 203 Va., at 432, 124 S. E. 2d, at 903–904; see also ibid ., 124 S. E. 2d, at 904 (noting that the prima-facie-evidence provision “ ‘is merely a rule of evidence and not the determination of a fact …’ ”).
The established meaning in Virginia, then, of the term “prima facie evidence” appears to be perfectly orthodox: It is evidence that suffices, on its own, to establish a particular fact. But it is hornbook law that this is true only to the extent that the evidence goes unrebutted. “Prima facie evidence of a fact is such evidence as, in judgment of law, is sufficient to establish the fact; and, if not rebutted , remains sufficient for the purpose.” 7B Michie’s Jurisprudence of Virginia and West Virginia §32 (1998) (emphasis added).
To be sure, Virginia is entirely free, if it wishes, to discard the canonical understanding of the term “prima facie evidence.” Its courts are also permitted to interpret the phrase in different ways for purposes of different statutes. In this case, however, the Virginia Supreme Court has done nothing of the sort. To the extent that tribunal has spoken to the question of what “prima facie evidence” means for purposes of §18.2–423, it has not deviated a whit from its prior practice and from the ordinary legal meaning of these words. Rather, its opinion explained that under §18.2–423, “the act of burning a cross alone, with no evidence of intent to intimidate, will … suffice for arrest and prosecution and will insulate the Commonwealth from a motion to strike the evidence at the end of its case-in-chief.” 262 Va. 764, 778, 553 S. E. 2d 738, 746 (2001). Put otherwise, where the Commonwealth has demonstrated through its case in chief that the defendant burned a cross in public view, this is sufficient, at least until the defendant has come forward with rebuttal evidence, to create a jury issue with respect to the intent element of the offense.
It is important to note that the Virginia Supreme Court did not suggest (as did the trial court’s jury instructions in respondent Black’s case, see n. 5, infra ) that a jury may, in light of the prima-facie-evidence provision, ignore any rebuttal evidence that has been presented and, solely on the basis of a showing that the defendant burned a cross, find that he intended to intimidate. Nor, crucially, did that court say that the presentation of prima facie evidence is always sufficient to get a case to a jury, i.e. , that a court may never direct a verdict for a defendant who has been shown to have burned a cross in public view, even if, by the end of trial, the defendant has presented rebuttal evidence. Instead, according to the Virginia Supreme Court, the effect of the prima-facie-evidence provision is far more limited. It suffices to “insulate the Commonwealth from a motion to strike the evidence at the end of its case-in-chief ,” but it does nothing more. 262 Va., at 778, 553 S. E. 2d, at 746 (emphasis added). That is, presentation of evidence that a defendant burned a cross in public view is automatically sufficient, on its own, to support an inference that the defendant intended to intimidate only until the defendant comes forward with some evidence in rebuttal.
The question presented, then, is whether, given this understanding of the term “prima facie evidence,” the cross-burning statute is constitutional. The Virginia Supreme Court answered that question in the negative. It stated that “§18.2–423 sweeps within its ambit for arrest and prosecution, both protected and unprotected speech.” Ibid. “The enhanced probability of prosecution under the statute chills the expression of protected speech sufficiently to render the statute overbroad.” Id ., at 777, 553 S. E. 2d, at 746.
This approach toward overbreadth analysis is unprecedented. We have never held that the mere threat that individuals who engage in protected conduct will be subject to arrest and prosecution suffices to render a statute overbroad. Rather, our overbreadth jurisprudence has consistently focused on whether the prohibitory terms of a particular statute extend to protected conduct; that is, we have inquired whether individuals who engage in protected conduct can be convicted under a statute, not whether they might be subject to arrest and prosecution. E.g., Houston v. Hill, 482 U. S. 451, 459 (1987) (a statute “that make[s] unlawful a substantial amount of constitutionally protected conduct may be held facially invalid” (emphasis added)); Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U. S. 104, 114 (1972) (a statute may be overbroad “if in its reach it prohibits constitutionally protected conduct” (emphasis added)); R. A. V. v. St. Paul, 505 U. S., at 397 (White, J., concurring in judgment) (deeming the ordinance at issue “fatally overbroad because it criminalizes … expression protected by the First Amendment” (emphasis added)).
Unwilling to embrace the Virginia Supreme Court’s novel mode of overbreadth analysis, today’s opinion properly focuses on the question of who may be convicted, rather than who may be arrested and prosecuted, under §18.2–423. Thus, it notes that “[t]he prima facie evidence provision permits a jury to convict in every cross-burning case in which defendants exercise their constitutional right not to put on a defense.” 1 Ante , at 19 (emphasis added). In such cases, the plurality explains, “[t]he provision permits the Commonwealth to arrest, prosecute, and convict a person based solely on the fact of cross burning itself.” Ibid. (emphasis added). And this, according to the plurality, is constitutionally problematic because “a burning cross is not always intended to intimidate,” and nonintimidating cross burning cannot be prohibited. Ante , at 20. In particular, the opinion notes that cross burning may serve as “a statement of ideology” or “a symbol of group solidarity” at Ku Klux Klan rituals, and may even serve artistic purposes as in the case of the film Mississippi Burning. Ibid .
The plurality is correct in all of this—and it means that some individuals who engage in protected speech may, because of the prima-facie-evidence provision, be subject to conviction. Such convictions, assuming they are unconstitutional, could be challenged on a case-by-case basis. The plurality, however, with little in the way of explanation, leaps to the conclusion that the possibility of such convictions justifies facial invalidation of the statute.
In deeming §18.2–423 facially invalid, the plurality presumably means to rely on some species of overbreadth doctrine. 2 But it must be a rare species indeed. We have noted that “[i]n a facial challenge to the overbreadth and vagueness of a law, a court’s first task is to determine whether the enactment reaches a substantial amount of constitutionally protected conduct.” Hoffman Estates v. Flipside, Hoffman Estates, Inc., 455 U. S. 489, 494 (1982) . If one looks only to the core provision of §18.2–423—“[i]t shall be unlawful for any person or persons, with the intent of intimidating any person or group of persons, to burn, or cause to be burned, a cross …”—it appears not to capture any protected conduct; that language is limited in its reach to conduct which a State is, under the Court’s holding, ante , at 17, allowed to prohibit. In order to identify any protected conduct that is affected by Virginia’s cross-burning law, the plurality is compelled to focus not on the statute’s core prohibition, but on the prima-facie-evidence provision, and hence on the process through which the prohibited conduct may be found by a jury. 3 And even in that context, the plurality cannot claim that improper convictions will result from the operation of the prima-facie-evidence provision alone . As the plurality concedes, the only persons who might impermissibly be convicted by reason of that provision are those who adopt a particular trial strategy, to wit, abstaining from the presentation of a defense.
The plurality is thus left with a strikingly attenuated argument to support the claim that Virginia’s cross-burning statute is facially invalid. The class of persons that the plurality contemplates could impermissibly be convicted under §18.2–423 includes only those individuals who (1) burn a cross in public view, (2) do not intend to intimidate, (3) are nonetheless charged and prosecuted, and (4) refuse to present a defense. Ante , at 19 (“The prima facie evidence provision permits a jury to convict in every cross-burning case in which defendants exercise their constitutional right not to put on a defense”).
Conceding (quite generously, in my view) that this class of persons exists, it cannot possibly give rise to a viable facial challenge, not even with the aid of our First Amendment overbreadth doctrine. For this Court has emphasized repeatedly that “where a statute regulates expressive conduct, the scope of the statute does not render it unconstitutional unless its overbreadth is not only real, but substantial as well, judged in relation to the statute’s plainly legitimate sweep.” Osborne v. Ohio, 495 U. S. 103, 112 (1990) (internal quotation marks omitted; emphasis added). See also Houston v. Hill, 482 U. S., at 458 (“Only a statute that is substantially overbroad may be invalidated on its face”); Members of City Council of Los Angeles v. Taxpayers for Vincent , 466 U. S. 789, 800 (1984) (“[T]he mere fact that one can conceive of some impermissible applications of a statute is not sufficient to render it susceptible to an overbreadth challenge”); New York v. Ferber, 458 U. S. 747, 771 (1982) (“[A] law should not be invalidated for overbreadth unless it reaches a substantial number of impermissible applications …”). The notion that the set of cases identified by the plurality in which convictions might improperly be obtained is sufficiently large to render the statute substantially overbroad is fanciful. The potential improper convictions of which the plurality complains are more appropriately classified as the sort of “marginal applications” of a statute in light of which “facial invalidation is inappropriate.” Parker v. Levy, 417 U. S. 733, 760 (1974) . 4
Perhaps more alarming, the plurality concedes, ante , at 18, 20, that its understanding of the prima-facie-evidence provision is premised on the jury instructions given in respondent Black’s case. This would all be well and good were it not for the fact that the plurality facially invalidates §18.2–423. Ante , at 21 (“[T]he prima facie evidence provision, as interpreted through the jury instruction and as applied in Barry Black’s case, is unconstitutional on its face”). I am aware of no case—and the plurality cites none—in which we have facially invalidated an ambiguous statute on the basis of a constitutionally troubling jury instruction. 5 And it is altogether unsurprising that there is no precedent for such a holding. For where state law is ambiguous, treating jury instructions as binding interpretations would cede an enormous measure of power over state law to trial judges. A single judge’s idiosyncratic reading of a state statute could trigger its invalidation. In this case, the troubling instruction—“The burning of a cross, by itself, is sufficient evidence from which you may infer the required intent,” App. 196—was taken verbatim from Virginia’s Model Jury Instructions. But these Model Instructions have been neither promulgated by the legislature nor formally adopted by the Virginia Supreme Court. And it is hornbook law, in Virginia as elsewhere, that “[p]roffered instructions which do not correctly state the law … are erroneous and should be refused.” 10A Michie’s Jurisprudence of Virginia and West Virginia, Instructions §15, p. 35 (Supp. 2000).
The plurality’s willingness to treat this jury instruction as binding (and to strike down §18.2–423 on that basis) would be shocking enough had the Virginia Supreme Court offered no guidance as to the proper construction of the prima-facie-evidence provision. For ordinarily we would decline to pass upon the constitutionality of an ambiguous state statute until that State’s highest court had provided a binding construction. E.g. , Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U. S. 43, 78 (1997) . If there is any exception to that rule, it is the case where one of two possible interpretations of the state statute would clearly render it unconstitutional, and the other would not. In that situation, applying the maxim “ ut res magis valeat quam pereat ” we would do precisely the opposite of what the plurality does here—that is, we would adopt the alternative reading that renders the statute constitutional rather than unconstitutional. The plurality’s analysis is all the more remarkable given the dissonance between the interpretation of §18.2–423 implicit in the jury instruction and the one suggested by the Virginia Supreme Court. That court’s opinion did not state that, once proof of public cross burning is presented, a jury is permitted to infer an intent to intimidate solely on this basis and regardless of whether a defendant has offered evidence to rebut any such inference. To the contrary, in keeping with the black-letter understanding of “prima facie evidence,” the Virginia Supreme Court explained that such evidence suffices only to “insulate the Commonwealth from a motion to strike the evidence at the end of its case-in-chief.” 262 Va., at 778, 553 S. E. 2d, at 746. The court did not so much as hint that a jury is permitted, under §18.2–423, to ignore rebuttal evidence and infer an intent to intimidate strictly on the basis of the prosecution’s prima facie case. And unless and until the Supreme Court of Virginia tells us that the prima-facie-evidence provision permits a jury to infer intent under such conditions, this Court is entirely unjustified in facially invalidating §18.2–423 on this basis.
As its concluding performance, in an apparent effort to paper over its unprecedented decision facially to invalidate a statute in light of an errant jury instruction, the plurality states:
“We recognize that the Supreme Court of Virginia has not authoritatively interpreted the meaning of the prima facie evidence provision… . We also recognize the theoretical possibility that the court, on remand, could interpret the provision in a manner different from that so far set forth in order to avoid the constitutional objections we have described. We leave open that possibility.” Ante , at 21.
Now this is truly baffling. Having declared, in the immediately preceding sentence, that §18.2–423 is “unconstitutional on its face ,” ibid. (emphasis added), the plurality holds out the possibility that the Virginia Supreme Court will offer some saving construction of the statute. It should go without saying that if a saving construction of §18.2–423 is possible, then facial invalidation is inappropriate. E.g. , Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U. S. 167, 176 (1959) (“[N]o principle has found more consistent or clear expression than that the federal courts should not adjudicate the constitutionality of state enactments fairly open to interpretation until the state courts have been afforded a reasonable opportunity to pass upon them”). So, what appears to have happened is that the plurality has facially invalidated not §18.2–423, but its own hypothetical interpretation of §18.2–423, and has then remanded to the Virginia Supreme Court to learn the actual interpretation of §18.2– 423. Words cannot express my wonderment at this virtuoso performance.
As the analysis in Part I, supra , demonstrates, I believe the prima-facie-evidence provision in Virginia’s cross-burning statute is constitutionally unproblematic. Nevertheless, because the Virginia Supreme Court has not yet offered an authoritative construction of §18.2–423, I concur in the Court’s decision to vacate and remand the judgment with respect to respondents Elliott and O’Mara. I also agree that respondent Black’s conviction cannot stand. As noted above, the jury in Black’s case was instructed that “[t]he burning of a cross, by itself , is sufficient evidence from which you may infer the required intent.” App. 196 (emphasis added). Where this instruction has been given, it is impossible to determine whether the jury has rendered its verdict (as it must) in light of the entire body of facts before it— including evidence that might rebut the presumption that the cross burning was done with an intent to intimidate—or, instead, has chosen to ignore such rebuttal evidence and focused exclusively on the fact that the defendant burned a cross. 6 Still, I cannot go along with the Court’s decision to affirm the judgment with respect to Black. In that judgment, the Virginia Supreme Court, having erroneously concluded that §18.2–423 is overbroad, not only vacated Black’s conviction, but dismissed the indictment against him as well. 262 Va., at 779, 553 S. E. 2d, at 746. Because I believe the constitutional defect in Black’s conviction is rooted in a jury instruction and not in the statute itself, I would not dismiss the indictment and would permit the Commonwealth to retry Black if it wishes to do so. It is an interesting question whether the plurality’s willingness to let the Virginia Supreme Court resolve the plurality’s make-believe facial invalidation of the statute extends as well to the facial invalidation insofar as it supports dismissal of the indictment against Black. Logically, there is no reason why it would not.
1 The plurality also asserts that “even where a defendant like Black presents a defense, the prima facie evidence provision makes it more likely that the jury will find an intent to intimidate regardless of the particular facts of the case.” Ante, at 19. There is no basis for this assertion. The Virginia Supreme Court’s opinion in Nance v. Commonwealth, 203 Va. 428, 432, 124 S. E. 2d 900, 903–904 (1962), states, in no uncertain terms, that the presentation of a prima facie case “ ‘relieves neither the court nor the jury of the duty to determine all of the questions of fact from the weight of the whole evidence.’ ” (Emphasis added.)
2 Overbreadth was, of course, the framework of analysis employed by the Virginia Supreme Court. See 262 Va. 764, 777–778, 553 S. E. 2d 738, 745–746 (2001) (examining the prima-facie-evidence provision in a section labeled “OVERBREADTH ANALYSIS” and holding that the provision “is overbroad”). Likewise, in their submissions to this Court, the parties’ analyses of the prima-facie-evidence provision focus on the question of overbreadth. Brief for Petitioner 41–50 (confining its discussion of the prima-facie-evidence provision to a section titled “THE VIRGINIA STATUTE IS NOT OVERBROAD”); Brief for Respondents 39–41 (arguing that “[t]he prima facie evidence provision … render[s] [the statute] overbroad”); Reply Brief for Petitioner 13–20 (dividing its discussion of the prima-facie-evidence provision into sections titled “There Is No Real Overbreadth” and “There Is No Substantial Overbreadth”). This reliance on overbreadth doctrine is understandable. This Court has made clear that to succeed in a facial challenge without relying on overbreadth doctrine, “the challenger must establish that no set of circumstances exists under which the Act would be valid.” United States v. Salerno, 481 U. S. 739, 745 (1987) . As the Court’s opinion concedes, some of the speech covered by §18.2–423 can constitutionally be proscribed, ante, at 17.
3 Unquestionably, the process through which elements of a criminal offense are established in a jury trial may raise serious constitutional concerns. Typically, however, such concerns sound in due process, not First Amendment overbreadth. E.g., County Court of Ulster Cty. v. Allen, 442 U. S. 140, 156–157 (1979) ; Barnes v. United States, 412 U. S. 837, 838 (1973) ; In re Winship, 397 U. S. 358, 359 (1970) . Respondents in this case have not challenged §18.2–423 under the Due Process Clause, and neither the plurality nor the Virginia Supreme Court relies on due process in declaring the statute invalid.
4 Confronted with the incontrovertible fact that this statute easily passes overbreadth analysis, the plurality is driven to the truly startling assertion that a statute which is not invalid in all of its applications may nevertheless be facially invalidated even if it is not overbroad. The only expression of that proposition that the plurality can find in our jurisprudence appears in footnote dictum in the 5-4 opinion in Secretary of State of Md. v. Joseph H. Munson Co., 467 U. S. 947, 965–966, n. 13 (1984) . See id., at 975 (Rehnquist, J., joined by Burger, C. J., and Powell, and O’Connor, JJ., dissenting). Stare decisis cannot explain the newfound affection for this errant doctrine (even if stare decisis applied to dictum), because the holding of a later opinion (joined by six Justices) flatly repudiated it. See United States v. Salerno, 481 U. S. 739, 745 (1987) (Rehnquist, C. J., joined by White, Blackmun, Powell, O’Connor, and Scalia, JJ.) (to succeed in a facial challenge without relying on overbreadth doctrine, “the challenger must establish that no set of circumstances exists under which the Act would be valid”). Even if I were willing, as the plurality apparently is, to ignore our repudiation of the Munson dictum, that case provides no foundation whatever for facially invalidating a statute under the conditions presented here. Our willingness facially to invalidate the statute in Munson without reliance on First Amendment overbreadth was premised on our conclusion that the challenged provision was invalid in all of its applications. We explained that “there is no core of easily identifiable and constitutionally proscribable conduct that the statute prohibits.” Munson, 467 U. S., at 965–966. And we stated that “[t]he flaw in the statute is not simply that it includes within its sweep some impermissible applications, but that in all its applications it operates on a fundamentally mistaken premise that high solicitation costs are an accurate measure of fraud.” Id., at 966. Unless the plurality is prepared to abandon a contention that it takes great pains to establish—that “the historyof cross burning in this country shows that cross burning is often intimidating, intended to create a pervasive fear in victims that they are a target of violence,” ante, at 14—it is difficult to see how Munson has any bearing on the constitutionality of the prima-facie-evidence provision.
5 The plurality’s reliance on Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U. S. 1 (1949) , is mistaken. In that case the Court deemed only the jury instruction, rather than the ordinance under review, to be constitutionally infirm. To be sure, it held that such a jury instruction could never support a constitutionally valid conviction, but that is quite different from holding the ordinance to be facially invalid. Insofar as the ordinance was concerned, Terminiello made repeated references to the as-applied nature of the challenge. Id., at 3 (noting that the defendant “maintained at all times that the ordinance as applied to his conduct violated his right of free speech . . . ” (emphasis added)); id., at 5 (noting that “[a]s construed and applied [the provision] at least contains parts that are unconstitutional” (emphasis added)); id., at 6 (“The pinch of the statute is in its application” (emphasis added)); ibid. (“The record makes clear that petitioner at all times challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance as construed and applied to him” (emphasis added)). See also Isserles, Overcoming Overbreadth: Facial Challenges and the Valid Rule Requirement, 48 Am. U. L. Rev. 359, 433, n. 333 (characterizing Terminiello as “adopting a court’s jury instruction as an authoritative narrowing construction of a breach of the peace ordinance but ultimately confining its decision to overturning the defendant’s conviction rather than invalidating the statute on its face”).
6 Though the jury may well have embraced the former (constitutionally permissible) understanding of its duties, that possibility is not enough to dissipate the cloud of constitutional doubt. See Sandstrom v. Montana, 442 U. S. 510, 517 (1979) (refusing to assume that the jury embraced a constitutionally sound understanding of an ambiguous instruction: “[W]e cannot discount the possibility that the jury may have interpreted the instruction [improperly] ”).
VIRGINIA, PETITIONER v. BARRY ELTON BLACK,
RICHARD J. ELLIOTT, and JONATHAN O’MARA
on writ of certiorari to the supreme court of virginia
Justice Souter , with whom Justice Kennedy and Justice Ginsburg join, concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part.
I agree with the majority that the Virginia statute makes a content-based distinction within the category of punishable intimidating or threatening expression, the very type of distinction we considered in R. A. V. v. St. Paul, 505 U. S. 377 (1992) . I disagree that any exception should save Virginia’s law from unconstitutionality under the holding in R. A. V. or any acceptable variation of it.
The ordinance struck down in R. A. V. , as it had been construed by the State’s highest court, prohibited the use of symbols (including but not limited to a burning cross) as the equivalent of generally proscribable fighting words, but the ordinance applied only when the symbol was provocative “ ‘on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender.’ ” Id. , at 380 (quoting St. Paul, Minn., Legis. Code §292.02 (1990)). Although the Virginia statute in issue here contains no such express “basis of” limitation on prohibited subject matter, the specific prohibition of cross burning with intent to intimidate selects a symbol with particular content from the field of all proscribable expression meant to intimidate. To be sure, that content often includes an essentially intimidating message, that the cross burner will harm the victim, most probably in a physical way, given the historical identification of burning crosses with arson, beating, and lynching. But even when the symbolic act is meant to terrify, a burning cross may carry a further, ideological message of white Protestant supremacy. The ideological message not only accompanies many threatening uses of the symbol, but is also expressed when a burning cross is not used to threaten but merely to symbolize the supremacist ideology and the solidarity of those who espouse it. As the majority points out, the burning cross can broadcast threat and ideology together, ideology alone, or threat alone, as was apparently the choice of respondents Elliott and O’Mara. Ante , at 8–11, 16.
The issue is whether the statutory prohibition restricted to this symbol falls within one of the exceptions to R. A. V. ’s general condemnation of limited content-based proscription within a broader category of expression proscribable generally. Because of the burning cross’s extraordinary force as a method of intimidation, the R. A. V. exception most likely to cover the statute is the first of the three mentioned there, which the R. A. V. opinion called an exception for content discrimination on a basis that “consists entirely of the very reason the entire class of speech at issue is proscribable.” R. A. V. , supra , at 388. This is the exception the majority speaks of here as covering statutes prohibiting “particularly virulent” proscribable expression. Ante , at 17.
I do not think that the Virginia statute qualifies for this virulence exception as R. A. V. explained it. The statute fits poorly with the illustrative examples given in R. A. V ., none of which involves communication generally associated with a particular message, and in fact, the majority’s discussion of a special virulence exception here moves that exception toward a more flexible conception than the version in R. A. V. I will reserve judgment on that doctrinal development, for even on a pragmatic conception of R. A. V. and its exceptions the Virginia statute could not pass muster, the most obvious hurdle being the statute’s prima facie evidence provision. That provision is essential to understanding why the statute’s tendency to suppress a message disqualifies it from any rescue by exception from R. A. V. ’s general rule.
R. A. V. defines the special virulence exception to the rule barring content-based subclasses of categorically proscribable expression this way: prohibition by subcategory is nonetheless constitutional if it is made “entirely” on the “basis” of “the very reason” that “the entire class of speech at issue is proscribable” at all. 505 U. S., at 388. The Court explained that when the subcategory is confined to the most obviously proscribable instances, “no significant danger of idea or viewpoint discrimination exists,” ibid. , and the explanation was rounded out with some illustrative examples. None of them, however, resembles the case before us. 1
The first example of permissible distinction is for a prohibition of obscenity unusually offensive “in its prurience,” ibid. (emphasis deleted), with citation to a case in which the Seventh Circuit discussed the difference between obscene depictions of actual people and simulations. As that court noted, distinguishing obscene publications on this basis does not suggest discrimination on the basis of the message conveyed. Kucharek v. Hanaway , 902 F. 2d 513, 517–518 (1990). The opposite is true, however, when a general prohibition of intimidation is rejected in favor of a distinct proscription of intimidation by cross burning. The cross may have been selected because of its special power to threaten, but it may also have been singled out because of disapproval of its message of white supremacy, either because a legislature thought white supremacy was a pernicious doctrine or because it found that dramatic, public espousal of it was a civic embarrassment. Thus, there is no kinship between the cross-burning statute and the core prurience example.
Nor does this case present any analogy to the statute prohibiting threats against the President, the second of R. A. V. ’s examples of the virulence exception and the one the majority relies upon. Ante , at 15–16. The content discrimination in that statute relates to the addressee of the threat and reflects the special risks and costs associated with threatening the President. Again, however, threats against the President are not generally identified by reference to the content of any message that may accompany the threat, let alone any viewpoint, and there is no obvious correlation in fact between victim and message. Millions of statements are made about the President every day on every subject and from every standpoint; threats of violence are not an integral feature of any one subject or viewpoint as distinct from others. Differential treatment of threats against the President, then, selects nothing but special risks, not special messages. A content-based proscription of cross burning, on the other hand, may be a subtle effort to ban not only the intensity of the intimidation cross burning causes when done to threaten, but also the particular message of white supremacy that is broadcast even by nonthreatening cross burning.
I thus read R. A. V. ’s examples of the particular virulence exception as covering prohibitions that are not clearly associated with a particular viewpoint, and that are consequently different from the Virginia statute. On that understanding of things, I necessarily read the majority opinion as treating R. A. V. ’s virulence exception in a more flexible, pragmatic manner than the original illustrations would suggest. Ante , at 17. Actually, another way of looking at today’s decision would see it as a slight modification of R. A. V. ’s third exception, which allows content-based discrimination within a proscribable category when its “nature” is such “that there is no realistic possibility that official suppression of ideas is afoot.” R. A. V. , supra , at 390. The majority’s approach could be taken as recognizing an exception to R. A. V. when circumstances show that the statute’s ostensibly valid reason for punishing particularly serious proscribable expression probably is not a ruse for message suppression, even though the statute may have a greater (but not exclusive) impact on adherents of one ideology than on others, ante , at 16–17.
My concern here, in any event, is not with the merit of a pragmatic doctrinal move. For whether or not the Court should conceive of exceptions to R. A. V. ’s general rule in a more practical way, no content-based statute should survive even under a pragmatic recasting of R. A. V. without a high probability that no “official suppression of ideas is afoot,” R. A. V. , supra , at 390. I believe the prima facie evidence provision stands in the way of any finding of such a high probability here.
Virginia’s statute provides that burning a cross on the property of another, a highway, or other public place is “prima facie evidence of an intent to intimidate a person or group of persons.” Va. Code Ann. §18.2–423 (1996). While that language was added by amendment to the earlier portion of the statute criminalizing cross burning with intent to intimidate, ante , at 17, it was a part of the prohibitory statute at the time these respondents burned crosses, and the whole statute at the time of respond- ents’ conduct is what counts for purposes of the First Amendment.
As I see the likely significance of the evidence provision, its primary effect is to skew jury deliberations toward conviction in cases where the evidence of intent to intimidate is relatively weak and arguably consistent with a solely ideological reason for burning. To understand how the provision may work, recall that the symbolic act of burning a cross, without more, is consistent with both intent to intimidate and intent to make an ideological statement free of any aim to threaten. Ante , at 9–11. One can tell the intimidating instance from the wholly ideological one only by reference to some further circumstance. In the real world, of course, and in real-world prosecutions, there will always be further circumstances, and the factfinder will always learn something more than the isolated fact of cross burning. Sometimes those circumstances will show an intent to intimidate, but sometimes they will be at least equivocal, as in cases where a white supremacist group burns a cross at an initiation ceremony or political rally visible to the public. In such a case, if the factfinder is aware of the prima facie evidence provision, as the jury was in respondent Black’s case, ante , at 3, the provision will have the practical effect of tilting the jury’s thinking in favor of the prosecution. What is significant is not that the provision permits a factfinder’s conclusion that the defendant acted with proscribable and punishable intent without any further indication, because some such indication will almost always be presented. What is significant is that the provision will encourage a factfinder to err on the side of a finding of intent to intimidate when the evidence of circumstances fails to point with any clarity either to the criminal intent or to the permissible one. The effect of such a distortion is difficult to remedy, since any guilty verdict will survive sufficiency review unless the defendant can show that, “viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, [no] rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.” Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U. S. 307, 319 (1979) . The provision will thus tend to draw nonthreatening ideological expression within the ambit of the prohibition of intimidating expression, as Justice O’Connor notes. Ante , at 18 (plurality opinion).
To the extent the prima facie evidence provision skews prosecutions, then, it skews the statute toward suppressing ideas. Thus, the appropriate way to consider the statute’s prima facie evidence term, in my view, is not as if it were an overbroad statutory definition amenable to severance or a narrowing construction. The question here is not the permissible scope of an arguably overbroad statute, but the claim of a clearly content-based statute to an exception from the general prohibition of content-based proscriptions, an exception that is not warranted if the statute’s terms show that suppression of ideas may be afoot. Accordingly, the way to look at the prima facie evidence provision is to consider it for any indication of what is afoot. And if we look at the provision for this purpose, it has a very obvious significance as a mechanism for bringing within the statute’s prohibition some ex- pression that is doubtfully threatening though certainly distasteful.
It is difficult to conceive of an intimidation case that could be easier to prove than one with cross burning, assuming any circumstances suggesting intimidation are present. The provision, apparently so unnecessary to legitimate prosecution of intimidation, is therefore quite enough to raise the question whether Virginia’s content-based statute seeks more than mere protection against a virulent form of intimidation. It consequently bars any conclusion that an exception to the general rule of R. A. V. is warranted on the ground “that there is no realistic [or little realistic] possibility that official suppression of ideas is afoot,” 505 U. S., at 390. 2 Since no R. A. V. exception can save the statute as content based, it can only survive if narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest, id. , at 395–396, a stringent test the statute cannot pass; a content-neutral statute banning intimidation would achieve the same object without singling out particular content.
I conclude that the statute under which all three of the respondents were prosecuted violates the First Amendment, since the statute’s content-based distinction was invalid at the time of the charged activities, regardless of whether the prima facie evidence provision was given any effect in any respondent’s individual case. In my view, severance of the prima facie evidence provision now could not eliminate the unconstitutionality of the whole statute at the time of the respondents’ conduct. I would therefore affirm the judgment of the Supreme Court of Virginia vacating the respondents’ convictions and dismissing the indictments. Accordingly, I concur in the Court’s judgment as to respondent Black and dissent as to respondents Elliott and O’Mara.
1 Although three examples are given, the third may be skipped here. It covers misleading advertising in a particular industry in which the risk of fraud is thought to be great, and thus deals with commercial speech with its separate doctrine and standards. R. A. V. v. St. Paul, 505 U. S. 377, 388–389 (1992) .
2 The same conclusion also goes for the second R. A. V. exception relating to “ ‘secondary effects.’ ” 505 U. S., at 389 (citing Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc., 475 U. S. 41, 48 (1986) ). Our “secondary effects” jurisprudence presupposes that the regulation at issue is “unrelated to the suppression of free expression.” Renton, supra, at 48.