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CROSS-BURNING CASE STIRS DEBATE OVER FREE SPEECH VS. HATE CRIMES

The Supreme Court is wading into a national debate over hate crimes - those sparked by racial, sexual and religious bigotry - and what communities can do to combat them.

The court's forthcoming decision in a cross-burning case from St. Paul, Minn., could affect hundreds of cities and towns nationwide.A St. Paul ordinance makes it a crime to place a burning cross, Nazi swastika or other item on public or private property - presumably even that person's own property - if the item "arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender."

Some groups, such as the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union, say the city ordinance is so broad that it could be used to suppress legally protected speech or expression.

Other groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, say the ordinance may be inartfully worded but it attacks conduct, not speech.

"The case before the court is the quintessential hate crime," Michael Lieberman of the Anti-Defamation League said Monday after the court said it would decide the St. Paul case. "This is about a burning cross left on the property of a black family that recently moved into an all-white neighborhood. There is no expressive speech here. That is conduct."

But Mark Anfinson of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union told the justices in a filing, "Though the motivation behind the ordinance may have been laudable, it incorporated virtually no sensitivity to its possible effect on freedom of expression."

The case could plunge the court back into an area of the law in which it has been deeply divided in recent years - the legal protection given to symbolic speech.

The court in 1989 and 1990 struck down federal laws that made it a crime to burn an American flag, but those rulings were reached by 5-4 votes. And Justice William J. Brennan, who wrote both decisions, has since retired and been replaced by Justice David H. Souter.

A decision is expected sometime in 1992.

The Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously upheld the St. Paul ordinance in January after it was challenged by a youth arrested when he was 17 on charges of burning two makeshift crosses in the yard of a black family's home last June.