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Va. Supreme Court: Noose display not constitutionally protected

supremect_mainThe conviction of a Southwest Virginia man who hung a black-faced dummy by a noose in his yard has been upheld by a ruling from the Virginia Supreme Court.

Jack Eugene Turner of Franklin County was convicted in 2015 of displaying a noose in his yard with the intention of intimidating his black neighbors. Court records show that the noose and mannequin were discovered by the family member of a black neighbor on the same day that the Charleston Church Shooting occurred.

Turner, who is white, was convicted based on a Virginia law passed in 2009, which says that anybody who displays a noose on another’s private property or in a public place “in a manner having a direct tendency to place another person in reasonable fear or apprehension of death or bodily injury” is guilty of a class six felony.

Turner served his six-month jail sentence before appealing the conviction all the way up to the Virginia Supreme Court.

In his appeal, Turner’s lawyers argued that the First Amendment grants the right to use offensive symbols on one’s own property.

The Attorney General’s office refuted this argument by claiming that Turner’s actions should be considered true threats and therefore, not protected by the First Amendment and that Turner’s yard counts as a public place because it could be clearly seen from the roadway.

The Supreme Court, in an 8-page decision, agreed with the prosecution that Turner’s actions qualified as a true threat. The March 1 decision is Turner v. Commonwealth (VLW 018-6-013).

They cited Black v. Commonwealth, a United States Supreme Court case that came from Virginia that ruled that cross burnings represented a true threat because they had a history as a symbol of violence to come.

The court ruled that a noose is also a true threat based on similar logic.

“At least 2,462 African American men, women, and children died at the hands of southern mobs,” the court said in its opinion. “Therefore, we conclude that the public display of a noose evokes a ’long and pernicious history as a signal of impending violence.’”

The court also made a noteworthy ruling in agreeing with the prosecution about what defines “public place” in the context of the Virginia noose law.

The court referenced Hackney v. Commonwealth, a 1947 case in which the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the definition of public place included a man’s front porch when he was yelling obscenities at a person who was passing along the nearby roadway.

Extrapolating, the court made a first impression decision that symbols displayed in a person’s yard represented a similar form of communication as yelling obscenities, since in both cases, the message was conveyed to passers-by on a public roadway.

As a result, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the 2009 noose law was constitutional and upheld the lower courts’ conviction of Turner.

Christopher P. Schandevel, the Virginia Assistant Attorney General who represented the state in the case could not be reached for comment. However Attorney General Mark Herring issued a press release in which he he condemned racist threats.

“The Commonwealth will not tolerate expressions of hate, intolerance, or bigotry intended to intimidate people because of their race,” Attorney General Mark Herring said in the release. “I will … do all I can to call out and hold accountable anyone who violates the rights of our fellow Virginians and makes them feel fearful and unwelcome.”

C. Holland Perdue III from Raine & Perdue in Rocky Mount who defended Turner did not respond to requests for comment.