Beauharnais v. Illinois

343 U.S. 250
Beauharnais v. Illinois
Argued: November 28-29, 1951
Decided: April 28, 1952


See 343 U.S. 988, 72 S.Ct. 1070.
Mr. Alfred A. Albert, New York City, for petitioner.
Mr. William C. Wines, Chicago, Ill., for respondent.
Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

Dissenting Opinion

Mr. Justice BLACK, with whom Mr. Justice DOUGLAS concurs, dissenting.

This case is here because Illinois inflicted criminal punishment on Beauharnais for causing the distribution of leaflets in the city of Chicago. The conviction rests on the leaflet’s contents, not on the time, manner or place of distribution. Beauharnais is head of an organization that opposes amalgamation and favors segregation of white and colored people. After discussion, an assembly of his group decided to petition the mayor and council of Chicago to pass laws for segregation. Volunteer members of the group agreed to stand on street corners, solicit signers to petitions addressed to the city authorities, and distribute leaflets giving information about the group, its beliefs and its plans. In carrying out this program a solicitor handed out a leaflet which was the basis of this prosecution. Since the Court opinion quotes only parts of the leaflet, I am including all of it as an appendix to this dissent.

That Beauharnais and his group were making a genuine effort to petition their elected representatives is not disputed. Even as far back as 1689, the Bill of Rights exacted of William & Mary said: ‘It is the Right of the Subjects to petition the King, and all Commitments and Prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal.’ [1] And 178 years ago the Declaration of Rights of the Continental Congress proclaimed to the monarch of that day that his American subjects had ‘a right peaceably to assemble, consider of their grievances, and petition the King; and that all prosecutions, prohibitory proclamations, and commitments for the same, are illegal.’ [2] After independence was won, Americans stated as the first unequivocal command of their Bill of Rights: ‘Congress shall make no law * * * abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’ Without distortion, this First Amendment could not possibly be read so as to hold that Congress has power to punish Beauharnais and others for petitioning Congress as they have here sought to petition the Chicago authorities. See e.g., Bridges v. State of California, 314 U.S. 252, 277, 62 S.Ct. 190, 201, 86 L.Ed. 192. And we have held in a number of prior cases that the Fourteenth Amendment makes the specific prohibitions of the First Amendment equally applicable to the states. [3]

In view of these prior holdings, how does the Court justify its holding today that states can punish people for exercising the vital freedoms intended to be safeguarded from suppression by the First Amendment? The prior holdings are not referred to; the Court simply acts on the bland assumption that the First Amendment is wholly irrelevant. It is not even accorded the respect of a passing mention. This follows logically, I suppose, from recent constitutional doctrine which appears to measure state laws solely by this Court’s notions of civilized ‘canons of decency,’ reasonableness, etc. See, e.g., Rochin v. People of California, 342 U.S. 165, 169, 72 S.Ct. 205, 207. Under this ‘reasonableness’ test, state laws abridging First Amendment freedoms are sustained if found to have a ‘rational basis.’ But in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 639, 63 S.Ct. 1178, 1186, 87 L.Ed. 1628, we said:

‘In weighing arguments of the parties it is important to distinguish between the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as an instrument for transmitting the principles of the First Amendment and those cases in which it is applied for its own sake. The test of legislation which collides with the Fourteenth Amendment, because it also collides with the principles of the First, is much more definite than the test when only the Fourteenth is involved. Much of the vagueness of the due process clause disappears when the specific prohibitions of the First become its standard. The right of a State to regulate, for example, a public utility may well include, so far as the due process test is concerned, power to impose all of the restrictions which a legislature may have a ‘rational basis’ for adopting. But freedoms of speech and of press, of assembly, and of worship may not be infringed on such slender grounds.’

Today’s case degrades First Amendment freedoms to the ‘rational basis’ level. It is now a certainty that the new ‘due process’ coverall offers far less protection to liberty than would adherence to our former cases compelling states to abide by the unequivocal First Amendment command that its defined freedoms shall not be abridged.

The Court’s holding here and the constitutional doctrine behind it leave the rights of assembly, petition, speech and press almost completely at the mercy of state legislative, executive, and judicial agencies. I say ‘almost’ because state curtailment of these freedoms may still be invalidated if a majority of this Court conclude that a particular infringement is ‘without reason,’ or is ‘a wilful and purposeless restriction unrelated to the peace and well being of the State.’ But lest this encouragement should give too much hope as to how and when this Court might protect these basic freedoms from state invasion, we are cautioned that state legislatures must be left free to ‘experiment’ and to make ‘legislative judgments. We are told that mistakes may be made during the legislative process of curbing public opinion. In such event the Court fortunately does not leave those mistakenly curbed, or any of us for that matter, unadvised. Consolation can be sought and must be found in the philosophical reflection that state legislative error in stifling speech and press ‘is the price to be paid for the trial-and-error inherent in legislative efforts to deal with obstinate social issues.’ My own belief is that no legislature is charged with the duty or vested with the power to decide what public issues Americans can discuss. In a free country that is the individual’s choice, not the state’s. State experimentation in curbing freedom of expression is startling and frightening doctrine in a country dedicated to self-government by its people. I reject the holding that either state or nation can punish people for having their say in matters of public concern.

The Illinois statute upheld by the Court makes it a crime:

1. for ‘any person, firm or corporation’,

2. to ‘manufacture, sell, or offer for sale, advertise or publish, present or exhibit in any public place’, 3. any ‘lithograph (construed to include any printed matter), moving picture, play, drama or sketch,’

4. which portrays ‘depravity, criminality, unchastity, or lack of virtue’,

5. of ‘a class of citizens, of any race, color, creed or religion’,

6. and exposes such a class to ‘contempt, derision, or obloquy’,

7. or ‘is productive of breach of the peace or riots.’

This statute imposes state censorship over the theater, moving pictures, radio, television, leaflets, magazines, books and newspapers. No doubt the statute is broad enough to make criminal the ‘publication, sale, presentation or exhibition’ of many of the world’s great classics, both secular and religious.

The Court condones this expansive state censorship by painstakingly analogizing it to the law of criminal libel. As a result of this refined analysis, the Illinois statute emerges labeled a ‘group libel law.’ This label may make the Court’s holding more palatable for those who sustain it, but the sugar-coating does not make the censorship less deadly. However tagged, the Illinois law is not that criminal libel which has been ‘defined, limited and constitutionally recognized time out of mind’. [4] For as ‘CONSTITUTIONALLY RECOGNIZED’ THAT CRIME has provided for punishment of false, malicious, scurrilous charges against individuals, not against huge groups. This limited scope of the law of criminal libel is of no small importance. It has confined state punishment of speech and expression to the narrowest of areas involving nothing more than purely private feuds. Every expansion of the law of criminal libel so as to punish discussions of matters of public concern means a corresponding invasion of the area dedicated to free expression by the First Amendment.

Prior efforts to expand the scope of criminal libel beyond its traditional boundaries have not usually met with widespread popular acclaim. ‘Seditious libel’ was such an expansion and it did have its day, particularly in the English Court of Star Chamber. But the First Amendment repudiated seditious libel for this country. And one need only glance through the parliamentary discussion of Fox’s Libel Law passed in England in 1792, to sense the bad odor of criminal libel in that country even when confined to charges against individuals only.

The Court’s reliance on Chaplinsky v. State of New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 62 S.Ct. 766, 770, 86 L.Ed. 1031, is also misplaced. New Hampshire had a state law making it an offense to direct insulting words at an individual on a public street. Chaplinsky had violated that law by calling a man vile names ‘face-to-face’. We pointed out in that context that the use of such ‘fighting’ words was not an essential part of exposition of ideas. Whether the words used in their context here are ‘fighting’ words in the same sense is doubtful, but whether so or not they are not addressed to or about individuals. Moreover, the leaflet used here was also the means adopted by an assembled group to enlist interest in their efforts to have legislation enacted. And the fighting words were but a part of arguments on questions of wide public interest and importance. Freedom of petition, assembly, speech and press could be greatly abridged by a practice of meticulously scrutinizing every editorial, speech, sermon or other printed matter to extract two or three naughty words on which to hang charges of ‘group libel.’ The Chaplinsky case makes no such broad inroads on First Amendment freedoms. Nothing Mr. Justice Murphy wrote for the Court in that case or in any other case justifies any such inference.

Unless I misread history the majority is giving libel a more expansive scope and more respectable status than it was ever accorded even in the Star Chamber. For here it is held to be punishable to give publicity to any picture, moving picture, play, drama or sketch, or any printed matter which a judge may find unduly offensive to any race, color, creed or religion. In other words, in arguing for or against the enactment of laws that may differently affect huge groups, it is now very dangerous indeed to say something critical of one of the groups. And any ‘person, firm or corporation’ can be tried for this crime. ‘Person, firm or corporation’ certainly includes a book publisher, newspaper, radio or television station, candidate or even a preacher.

It is easy enough to say that none of this latter group have been proceeded against under the Illinois Act. And they have not yet. But emotions bubble and tempers flare in racial and religious controversies, the kind here involved. It would not be easy for any court, in good conscience, to narrow this Act so as to exclude from it any of those I have mentioned. Furthermore, persons tried under the Act could not even get a jury trial except as to the bare fact of publication. Here, the court simply charged the jury that Beauharnais was guilty if he had caused distribution of the leaflet. Such trial by judge rather than by jury was outlawed in England in 1792 by Fox’s Libel Law.

This Act sets up a system of state censorship which is at war with the kind of free government envisioned by those who forced adoption of our Bill of Rights. The motives behind the state law may have been to do good. But the same can be said about most laws making opinions punishable as crimes. History indicates that urges to do good have led to the burning of books and even to the burning of ‘witches.’

No rationalization on a purely legal level can conceal the fact that state laws like this one present a constant overhanging threat to freedom of speech, press and religion. Today Beauharnais is punished for publicly expressing strong views in favor of segregation. Ironically enough, Beauharnais, convicted of crime in Chicago, would probably be given a hero’s reception in many other localities, if not in some parts of Chicago itself. Moreover, the same kind of state law that makes Beauharnais a criminal for advocating segregation in Illinois can be utilized to send people to jail in other states for advocating equality and nonsegregation. What Beauharnais said in his leaflet is mild compared with usual arguments on both sides of racial controversies.

We are told that freedom of petition and discussion are in no danger ‘while this Court sits.’ This case raises considerable doubt. Since those who peacefully petition for changes in the law are not to be protected ‘while this Court sits,’ who is? I do not agree that the Constitution leaves freedom of petition, assembly, speech, press or worship at the mercy of a case-by-case, day-by-day majority of this Court. I had supposed that our people could rely for their freedom on the Constitution’s commands, rather than on the grace of this Court on an individual case basis. To say that a legislative body can, with this Court’s approval, make it a crime to petition for and publicly discuss proposed legislation seems as farfetched to me as it would be to say that a valid law could be enacted to punish a candidate for President for telling the people his views. I think the First Amendment, with the Fourteenth, ‘absolutely’ forbids such laws without any ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ or ‘whereases.’ Whatever the danger, if any, in such public discussions, it is a danger the Founders deemed outweighed by the danger incident to the stifling of thought and speech. The Court does not act on this view of the Founders. It calculates what it deems to be the danger of public discussion, holds the scales are tipped on the side of state suppression, and upholds state censorship. This method of decision offers little protection to First Amendment liberties ‘while this Court sits.’

If there be minority groups who hail this holding as their victory, they might consider the possible relevancy of this ancient remark:

‘Another such victory and I am undone.’


^1  1 William & Mary, Sess. 2, c. 2 (1689).

^2  Eighth Resolution of the Continental Congress of 1774.

^3  E.g., Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U.S. 233, 244, 245, 249, 56 S.Ct. 444, 446, 447, 448, 80 L.Ed. 660; Lovell v. City of Griffin, 303 U.S. 444, 450, 58 S.Ct. 666, 668, 82 L.Ed. 949; Schneider v. State of New Jersey, 308 U.S. 147, 160, 60 S.Ct. 146, 150, 84 L.Ed. 155; Thornhill v. State of Alabama, 310 U.S. 88, 95, 60 S.Ct. 736, 740, 84 L.Ed. 1093; Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586, 593, 60 S.Ct. 1010, 1012, 84 L.Ed. 1375; West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 639, 63 S.Ct. 1178, 1186, 87 L.Ed. 1628; Thomas v. Collins, 323 U.S. 516, 529-530, concurring opinion, 545, 65 S.Ct. 315, 322, 329, 89 L.Ed. 430; Pennekamp v. State of Florida, 328 U.S. 331, 349, 66 S.Ct. 1029, 1038, 90 L.Ed. 1295.

^4  The Court’s finding of a close kinship between ‘criminal libel’ and ‘group libel’ because both contain the word ‘libel’ and have some factors in common is reminiscent of what Earl Stanhope said in 1792 in discussing Mr. Fox’s Libel Bill. He was arguing that a jury of laymen might more likely protect liberty than judges, because judges were prone to rely too heavily on word books. ‘He put the case, that an action for a libel was brought for using a modern word, not to be found in any grammar or glossary, viz. for saying that a man was ‘a great bore;’ a jury would laugh at such a ground of prosecution, but the judges would turn to their grammars and glossaries, and not being able to meet with it, would say they could not find such a phrase as ‘a great bore,’ but they had found a wild boar, which no doubt it meant; and yet it could not be, as a wild boar had four legs, and a man was a two legged animal; then it must mean, that the plaintiff was like a wild boar in disposition, which was a wicked libel, and therefore let the defendant be hanged.’ 29 Hansard, Parliamentary History of England, p. 1412.

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