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Is cross burning a form of free speech?

High court hears arguments in two cases that test the limits of First Amendment.

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Few symbols carry such a clear and terrifying message as the sight of a burning cross on someone's front lawn.

For most of the past century, the Ku Klux Klan, in particular, has used the flaming cross both as a symbol of white supremacy and as a terror tactic aimed primarily at African-Americans.

Aware of this legacy, lawmakers in Virginia made it illegal to burn a cross with the intent of intimidating someone.

But now the statute is being challenged by free-speech advocates, who say that a burning cross can be a form of communication protected by the First Amendment.

In a potential landmark free-speech case, the US Supreme Court Wednesday begins examining the constitutionality of Virginia's cross-burning statute. It is a case that will seek to balance a state's power to protect its citizens from the hateful actions of others while remaining faithful to the free-speech mandate of the US Constitution.

First Amendment advocates see in Virginia's law the thin edge of a wedge that could authorize broader government censorship. "If the government is permitted to select one symbol for banishment from public discourse there are few limiting principles to prevent it from selecting others," says Rodney Smolla, a law professor at the University of Richmond, in his brief to the court. "It is but a short step from the banning of offending symbols such as burning crosses or burning flags to the banning of offending words."

Virginia officials say the law is aimed at prosecuting intimidation, not muzzling communication. "Our ban on cross burning does not infringe anyone's right to free speech because people do not have a right to threaten others," says Tim Murtaugh of the Virginia Attorney General's Office, which is defending the law before the high court. The only message conveyed by a burning cross is one of fear, Mr. Murtaugh says. "If you come out of your house and see a burning square or a burning circle, you will call the fire department," he says. "If you come out and see a burning cross, you will call the police."

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