A nationwide uptick in reported displays of hangman's nooses - symbols historically associated with the lynching of African-Americans by whites - has led a handful of states to criminalize or consider criminalizing such acts, which President Bush has denounced as having "no place in America today."
The governors of Connecticut and New York last month approved new laws to punish those who display nooses to intimidate or harass minorities and others. While violators in Connecticut face up to a year in prison under the state's new statute, offenders in New York could serve up to four years.
The laws come after recent incidents in both states ignited widespread outrage, including the discovery by a black Columbia University professor of a rope dangling from her office door at the university's Manhattan campus.
In Louisiana , where a noose display at a high school in the town of Jena led to altercations between white and black students and the eventual influx of tens of thousands of civil-rights demonstrators last September, the Legislature is moving swiftly to pass its own law. The state House of Representatives this week voted unanimously to punish those who display nooses to threaten others; the Senate is expected to take up the measure soon.
Lawmakers in at least four other states - Florida , Maryland , Missouri and North Carolina - also have considered proposals to criminalize noose displays this year. The proposals, like the new laws in Connecticut and New York , seek to specifically spell out that noose displays are illegal, rather than prosecuting them under broader criminal laws already in place.
Even as some states have rushed to punish those who mount noose displays, however, some civil libertarians warn that anti-noose laws could have unintended consequences. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People , for example, has expressed concern that the laws could infringe on free speech protected by the First Amendment, while others say the statutes could unintentionally ensnare the wrong people.
"My concern is that we over-legislate to the point where some kid putting up a Halloween display winds up in a juvenile hall," said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center , which tracks and studies hate crimes. Potok said a carelessly worded statute could result in a "hapless citizen" being prosecuted as a "white supremacist."
The center, based in Montgomery , Ala. , has recorded a marked increase in noose displays. It has tallied at least 80 reports of nooses displayed in the roughly nine months since last year's demonstrations in Louisiana, compared with about a dozen annual incidents in the years leading up to the demonstrations. Potok said the Jena protests - and the media attention accompanying them - "set off a wave" of noose displays in other parts of the country.
Indeed, the displays have met with condemnation from the highest levels of government. Speaking to African-American leaders at the White House in
February, President Bush called the lynching of blacks by whites a "shameful chapter in American history" and denounced noose displays as a symbol of "gross injustice."
"Displaying one is not a harmless prank. And lynching is not a word to be mentioned in jest," Bush said in a speech . "As a civil society, we must understand that noose displays and lynching jokes are deeply offensive. They are wrong. And they have no place in America today."
The federal government has no sweeping law against noose displays, though such acts can be prosecuted under federal law as a hate crime in some cases. That has led states, which also have general hate-crimes laws, to explore more specific legislation to address the problem.
In Louisiana , state Rep. Rickey Hardy (D), who introduced the state's bill, said he originally sought to punish those who hang nooses with up to 15 years behind bars and a $15,000 fine. His bill was revised, however, and now calls for penalties of up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine.
"I want to send a message that this will not be tolerated in 2008 in the state of Louisiana ," Hardy, who is black, said in a telephone interview with Stateline.org . He said he hopes Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) - himself a minority as the nation's first elected Indian-American governor - would see the need for the legislation.
In New York , where noose displays have cropped up around the state, the new law is tougher than other states' proposals. It criminalizes not only displaying nooses, but "etching, painting, drawing or otherwise placing or displaying a noose" on property without permission.
Legal experts say the most crucial aspect in the debate over whether anti-noose laws violate the First Amendment is the way they address the intentions of those who carry out the displays. In Connecticut and New York , for example, offenders can be prosecuted only if authorities can prove that they intended to intimidate their victims.
Steven Freeman, director of legal affairs with the Anti-Defamation League , an international civil rights organization based in New York , said the absence of "intent" provisions could call state laws into legal question.
"The intent has to be there," Freeman said. "Otherwise you run into constitutional problems."
Proving intent, however, can be difficult. At Virginia 's University of Richmond this year, for example, a faculty member walked into a theater on campus to find a black doll hanging from a noose on stage. The incident provoked revulsion and a widespread backlash by students and faculty.
But because the doll had been used in a previous theatrical production - and was displayed with a sign reading "ART IS DEAD. Long LIVE art" - motivation for the act has been difficult for authorities to ascertain.