New York Governor Signs Tough New Swastika Law

People in New York state convicted of burning crosses or defacing property with Nazi swastikas will face tougher penalties under a law signed Thursday by Gov. George Pataki.

Lawyers at the New York Civil Liberties Union and a professor at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law said they knew of no other U.S. state that had a similar law.

Etching, painting, drawing or placing a swastika on public or private property without the owner's permission, along with cross burning, will now be considered felonies punishable by up to four years in prison.

Previously, cases of ethnic, racial or religious intimidation were prosecuted as misdemeanors, many of which were reduced to violations in plea agreements, said Assemblyman William Colton, a Brooklyn Democrat who sponsored the bill.

Colton said the law was prompted by cases in the past few years in which swastikas, were drawn on buildings, including the apartment house of a Holocaust survivor in his district.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states can punish Ku Klux Klansmen and others who set crosses afire, finding that a burning cross is an instrument of racial terror so threatening that it overrides free speech protections. The court voted 6-3 to uphold states' power to punish those who burn crosses to intimidate.

Several other states have laws against cross burning, said University of Denver law professor Catherine Smith, a former legal fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center that tracks hate groups. The federal government has also prosecuted the burning of crosses under civil rights law.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the New York law is unconstitutional despite the Supreme Court's ruling because the statute penalizes a specific viewpoint, not an overt threat.

The constitutionality of the law could be challenged in court.