Editorial: Displaying a noose is unlawful

It is now illegal to display a noose on a college or other school campus in California — a state law prompted in part by a shameful 2008 incident at Cal Poly. In that much-publicized case, a noose was placed next to a Confederate flag and a racist, anti-gay sign.

At the time, university officials condemned the incident, but also pointed out that their ability to discipline students was limited because it could violate their right to free speech.

With passage of the new law — Assembly Bill 412 — the free speech defense should be out the window. The law recognizes the display of a noose for what it is — not a harmless prank, but a hate crime.

We commend the Legislature for taking such a strong stance. While we are staunch defenders of the First Amendment, we find it abhorrent that anyone would hide behind it to justify the display of such an odious symbol.

It should be noted that this type of law is not precedent setting; California already has similar bans on displaying swastikas and burning crosses.

The new ban on nooses makes it a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and/or a fine of up to $5,000 to display a noose “with the intent to terrorize.”

It describes the noose as a “symbol representing a threat to life” and bans its displays not only on school campuses, but also at workplaces and parks.

It does not forbid homeowners from displaying nooses on their own property, but does make it a crime to place a noose on someone else’s private property without authorization.

Supporters of the legislation cited the Cal Poly incident in lobbying for the bill. (Other California cases mentioned included a 2008 Halloween display of a lynched effigy of Barack Obama, and a 2007 incident at Cal State Fullerton, where four nooses were hung at the site of an anti-hate rally.)

As much as we commend the passage of the bill, it is sobering that such a law was necessary in the first place — and sad to think of Cal Poly’s link to this.

As shocking as that incident was, however, we should also remember the aftermath: The incident triggered immediate and widespread revulsion that extended far beyond the college community.

That reaction made it clear that such incidents will not be tolerated.

This legislation is a powerful reinforcement of that message.