N.C. Bill Would Outlaw Some Cross-Burnings, Noose Displays

Following a number of high-profile reports of noose hangings, lawmakers are mulling a plan that would make such displays and cross burnings felonies if they were carried out to intimidate someone.

"Events across the nation, events across my community, events across my state, led me to introduce this legislation," said sponsor state Sen. Doug Berger, D-Franklin.

The bill, introduced near the start of the legislative session, would make the display of a noose or the burning of a cross a felony punishable by up to about two years in prison. A first-time offender could receive between four and eight months.

The plan seeks to elevate the crimes -- it's already a misdemeanor to engage in ethnic intimidation -- to felony offenses, Berger said.

But there are two stipulations: The display must be designed to intimidate someone, and the target must be of a different race, color, creed, nationality or country of origin than the perpetrator.

Specifying that the act must be carried out with the intent to intimidate someone is designed to avoid infringing on an individual's First Amendment rights. The clause is necessary for the legislation to survive constitutional muster, Berger said.

The North Carolina branch of the American Civil Liberties Union is reviewing the bill.

North Carolina's plan comes as other states look at similar measures spurred by the apparent uptick in displays of a symbol long associated with the lynching of blacks.

New York Gov. David Paterson signed legislation last month that boosted noose displays to the same category of crime as cross-burnings and swastika displays. The law comes a year after a noose was hung on a black Columbia University professor's door. Connecticut and Louisiana lawmakers have approved similar plans.

But states have not embraced similar proposals en masse because most already have laws that can be applied to noose-hangings or cross-burnings, said Larry Frankel, the ACLU's state legislative counsel at the group's Washington legislative office. For example, threatening someone and defacing property is already against the law, he said.

"The bottom line is, where you're really intentionally threatening someone by burning a cross or by sending nooses in the mail, there's probably already a criminal statute that applies," Frankel said.

South Carolina state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Hopkins, has tried unsuccessfully for years to get legislation through to create specific penalties for crimes committed based on the victim's race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or faith. For decades, national attention has focused on church burnings, a fight to remove the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds, and the death of a 20-year-old gay man who died a day after being punched outside a Greenville bar.

"Most of the legislators seem to feel like 'Why would you separate one crime from another' " and say assaults are assaults, Jackson said.

North Carolina's proposal earned the backing of a Senate judiciary committee earlier this month over the concerns of state Sen. Eddie Goodall, R-Union, who says he fears the proposal will cause racial tension, rather than alleviate it.

"I don't know that it helps race relations to dig up these old symbols and pay them attention," Goodall said. "We certainly don't want to forget history because it could repeat itself, but at the same time, I'm not aware of anything other than anecdotal reports of very infrequent occurrences."

But William Barber, North Carolina's NAACP chapter president, said the displays should be set apart from other crimes because of their history. Over the last several years, there have been cross-burnings in Durham County, and nooses have been found on at least one North Carolina college campus and in a state garage, Barber noted.

"Those symbols are not only connected to deep physical violence, they're connected to deep psychological violence," Barber said.

The bill has been sent to a Senate appropriations committee. It needs the approval of both the full House and Senate before it can be sent to Gov. Mike Easley's desk.