A divided Vermont Supreme Court on Friday overturned the disorderly conduct conviction of a Ku Klux Klan member who left recruitment flyers at the homes of two minority women in Burlington in 2015.
In a 3-2 opinion, justices ruled that William Schenk's action did not convey an "imminent threat of harm" as required by the law to support the charge.
Schenk, 21 at the time, told investigators that he was on a KKK recruiting mission and distributed around 50 flyers that read "Join the Klan and save our land." But authorities said he left flyers for just two people: One of the women is African American, and the other identified herself as Mexican, according to court documents.
"The flyer is a recruitment solicitation — its overt message is to join the Ku Klux Klan," former associate justice John Dooley wrote. "It contains no explicit statement of threat. To the extent that it conveys a message of personal threat to the recipient, it is that the Klan will recruit members and inflict harm in the future."
In April 2016, Schenk pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct and was sentenced to four months in prison. He could not be reached for comment Friday.
The long-awaited decision caused a rare split on the high court, which tends to have fewer close decisions in high-profile cases than its federal counterpart.
Dooley was joined in the majority opinion by Associate Justices Marilyn Skoglund and Harold Eaton. Chief Justice Paul Reiber and Associate Justice Beth Robinson dissented.
In the dissent, Robinson wrote that the majority's interpretation of threatening behavior is "excessively narrow," though she acknowledged the case was "difficult and close."
"The distribution of literature extolling the Ku Klux Klan when delivered only to two targeted individuals who are racial or ethnic minorities, is especially threatening when delivered inside the [perimeter] of their own homes," Robinson wrote.