Should Virginia’s Noose Law Be Changed?
In Jack Turner’s mind, a message needed to be sent. On one night in 2015, out of frustration with his black neighbors, he hung a black dummy in his yard by a noose. With this, the message was sent – and a Virginia law may have been broken.
Virginia’s Noose Law:
The Code of Virginia is very straightforward about the use of nooses. “Any person who, with the intent of intimidating any person or group of persons, displays a noose on the private property of another without permission…on a highway or other 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 6 felony.” Those three locations are very important. A noose cannot be hung on someone else’s property, on a highway, or in a public place.
According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, there were 84 deaths by lynching in Virginia between 1877 and 1950. This is what led the General Assembly to pass the noose law in 2009. This is the law that put Jack Turner in jail in 2015.
Turner’s Supreme Court Appeal:
Jack Turner is not sitting quietly in jail, however. He decided to appeal his conviction, and in the process, he has garnered a lot of attention from the legal community.
The Virginia Supreme Court has agreed to hear Turner’s appeal. The basis for Turner’s appeal, in part, is that he hung the noose on his own private property and therefore, he didn't violate the statute. His argument is that since private property wasn't specifically listed in the Code, the law wasn't broken. If the General Assembly intended to prohibit behavior on private property, it could have easily done so.
Turner was convicted, however, because he lives near a highway. The way that he hung his noose made it visible from the highway. The Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office was also able to prove that he was intending to intimidate his neighbors. Those two elements together led to his conviction.
The Future of the Noose Law:
Should Turner have been convicted based on those facts? Make sure to keep your emotions in check before you answer that question. If you find his actions distasteful, you are certainly not alone, but that was not the question. Should Turner have been found guilty of the noose law, or was he merely exercising his free speech rights under the First Amendment?
Public opinion has seemed to settle on the fact that, just because you have the right to it, free speech should not always be exercised. Sometimes, decorum is needed. Legally, however, it is important that our criminal justice system does not overreach. A lack of decorum does not always mean a violation of law.
Benjamin Franklin once said that “[t]hose who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
Death by lynching is a distasteful part of our country’s past. The use of a noose is also distasteful, especially if meant to intimidate. Should it also be illegal when hung by a person on his own property? It is now up to the Virginia Supreme Court to interpret the statute against Mr. Turner's behavior. And, it is safe to say that there will be many people interested in the result.
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