Kovacs v. Cooper

336 U.S. 77
Kovacs v. Cooper
Argued: October 11, 1948
Decided: January 31, 1949


See 336 U.S. 921, 69 S.Ct. 638.

Appeal from the Court of Errors and Appeals of the State of New jersey.
Mr. George Pellettieri, of Trenton, N.J., for appellant.
Louis Josephson, of Trenton, N.J., for appellee.
Mr. Justice REED announced the judgment of the Court and an opinion in which The CHIEF JUSTICE and Mr. Justice BURTON join.

Dissenting Opinion

Mr. Justice BLACK, with whom Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, and Mr. Justice RUTLEDGE concur, dissenting.

The question in this case is not whether appellant may constitutionally be convicted of operating a sound truck that emits ‘loud and raucous noises.’ The appellant was neither charged with nor convicted of operating a sound truck that emitted ‘loud and raucous noises.’ The charge against him in the police court was that he violated the city ordinance ‘in that he did, on South Stockton Street, in said City, play, use and operate a devise known as a sound truck.’ The record reflects not even a shadow of evidence to prove that the noise was either ‘loud or raucous,’ unless these words of the ordinance refer to any noise coming from an amplifier whatever its volume or tone.

After appellant’s conviction in the police court, the case was taken to the Supreme Court of New Jersey for review. That court, composed of three judges, stated with reference to the ordinance and charge: ‘In simple, unambiguous language it prohibits the use upon the public streets of any device known as a sound truck, loud speaker or sound amplifier. This is the only charge made against the defendant in the complaint.’ Kovacs v. Cooper, 135 N.J.L. 64, 69, 50 A.2d 451, 453. That this court construed the ordinance as an absolute prohibition of all amplifiers on any public street at any time and without regard to volume of sound is emphasized by its further statement that ‘the ordinance leaves untouched the right of the prosecutor to express his views orally w thout the aid of an amplifier.’ Id., 135 N.J.L. at page 66, 50 A.2d at page 452. (Emphasis supplied.) Thus the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed the conviction on the ground that the appellant was shown guilty of the only offense of which he was charged-speaking through an amplifier on a public street. If as some members of this Court now assume, he was actually convicted for operating a machine that emitted ‘loud and raucous noises,’ then he was convicted on a charge for which he was never tried. ‘It is as much a violation of due process to send an accused to prison following conviction of a charge on which he was never tried as it would be to convict him upon a charge that was never made.’ Cole v. Arkansas, 333 U.S. 196, 201, 68 S.Ct. 514, 517.

Furthermore, when the conviction was later affirmed in the New Jersey Court of Errors and Appeals by an equally divided court, no one of that court’s judges who voted to affirm expressed any doubt as to the correctness of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s interpretation; indeed those judges wrote no opinion at all. One of the six who voted to reverse did base his judgment on the fact that there was not ‘a scintilla of evidence that the music or voice was loud or raucous’ and that under the wording of the ordinance such proof was essential. Kovacs v. Cooper, 135 N.J.L. 584, 585, 52 A.2d 806, 809. In construing the statute as requiring a proof of loud and raucous noises, the dissenting judge made the initial mistake of the majority of this Court, but he conceded that under this construction of the statute there was a fatal absence of proof to convict. The other five judges who were for reversal concluded that the ordinance represented ‘an attempt by the municipality under the guise of regulation, to prohibit and outlaw, under all circumstances and conditions, the use of sound amplifying systems.’ Kovacs v. Cooper, supra, 135 N.J.L. at page 590, 52 A.2d at page 809.

It thus appears that the appellant was charged and convicted by interpreting the ordinance as an absolute prohibition against the use of sound amplifying devices. The New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed only on that interpretation of the ordinance. There is no indication whatever that there was a different view entertained by the six judges of the Court of Errors and Appeals who affirmed the conviction. And it strains the imagination to say that the ordinance itself would warrant any other interpretation.

Nevertheless, in this Court the requisite majority for affirmance of appellant’s conviction is composed in part of Justices who give the New Jersey ordinance a construction different from that given it by the state courts. That is not all. Affirmance here means that the appellant will be punished for an offense with which he was not charged, to prove which no evidence was offered, and of which he was not convicted, according to the only New Jersey court which affirmed with opinion. At the last term of court we held that the Arkansas Supreme Court had denied an appellant due process because it had failed to appraise the validity of a conviction ‘on consideration of the case as it was tried and as the issues were determined in the trial court.’ Cole v. Arkansas, supra, 333 U.S. at page 202, 68 S.Ct. at page 517. I am unable to distinguish the action taken by this Court today from the action of the Arkansas Supreme Court which we declared denied a defendant due process of law.

The New Jersey ordinance is on its face, and as construed and applied in this case by that state’s courts, an absolute and unqualified prohibition of amplifying devices on any of Trenton’s streets at any time, at any place, for any purpose, and without regard to how noisy they may be.

In Saia v. New York, 334 U.S. 558, 68 S.Ct. 1148, we had before us an ordinance of the City of Lockport, New York, which forbade the use of sound amplification devices except with permission of the chief of police. The ordinance was applied to keep a minister from using an amplifier while preaching in a public p rk. We held that the ordinance, aimed at the use of an amplifying device, invaded the area of free speech guaranteed the people by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The ordinance, so we decided, amounted to censorship in its baldest form. And our conclusion rested on the fact that the chief of police was given arbitrary power to prevent the use of speech amplifying devices at all times and places in the city, without regard to the volume of the sound. We pointed out the indispensable function performed by loud speakers in modern public speaking. We then placed use of loud speakers in public streets and parks on the same constitutional level as freedom to speak on streets without such devices, freedom to speak over radio, and freedom to distribute literature.

In this case the Court denies speech amplifiers the constitutional shelter recognized by our decisions and holding in the Saia case. This is true because the Trenton, New Jersey, ordinance here sustained goes beyond a mere prior censorship of all loud speakers with authority in the censor to prohibit some of them. This Trenton ordinance wholly bars the use of all loud speakers mounted upon any vehicle in any of the city’s public streets.

In my view this repudiation of the prior Saia opinion makes a dangerous and unjustifiable breach in the constitutional barriers designed to insure freedom of expression. Ideas and beliefs are today chiefly disseminated to the masses of people through the press, radio, moving pictures, and public address systems. To some extent at least there is competition of ideas between and within these groups. The basic premise of the First Amendment is that all present instruments of communication, as well as others that inventive genius may bring into being, shall be free from governmental censorship or prohibition. Laws which hamper the free use of some instruments of communication thereby favor competing channels. Thus unless constitutionally prohibited, laws like this Trenton ordinance can give an overpowering influence to views of owners of legally favored instruments of communication. This favoritism, it seems to me, is the inevitable result of today’s decision. For the result of today’s opinion in upholding this statutory prohibition of amplifiers would surely not be reached by this Court if such channels of communication as the press, radio, or moving pictures were similarly attacked.

There are many people who have ideas that they wish to disseminate but who do not have enough money to own or control publishing plants, newspapers, radios, moving picture studios, or chains of show places. Yet everybody knows the vast reaches of these powerful channels of communication which from the very nature of our economic system must be under the control and guidance of comparatively few people. On the other hand, public speaking is done by many men of divergent minds with no centralized control over the ideas they entertain so as to limit the causes they espouse. It is no reflection on the value of preserving freedom for dissemination of the ideas of publishers of newspapers, magazines, and other literature, to believe that transmission of ideas through public speaking is also essential to the sound thinking of a fully informed citizenry.

It is of particular importance in a government where people elect their officials that the fullest opportunity be afforded candidates to express and voters to hear their views. It is of equal importance that criticism of governmental action not be limited to criticisms by press, radio, and moving pictures. In no other way except public speaking can the desirable objective of widespread public discussion be assured. For the press, the radio, and the moving picture owners have their favorites, and it assumes the impossible to suppose that these agencies will at all times be equally fair as between the candidates and officials they favor and those whom they vigorously oppose. And it is an obvious fact that public speaking today without sound amplifiers is a wholly inadequate way to reach the people on a large scale. Consequently, to tip the scales against transmission of ideas through public speaking as the Court does today, is to deprive the people of a large part of the basic advantages of the receipt of ideas that the First Amendment was designed to protect.

There is no more reason that I can see for wholly prohibiting one useful instrument of communication that another. If Trenton can completely bar the streets to the advantageous use of loud speakers, all cities can do the same. In that event preference in the dissemination of ideas is given those who can obtain the support of newspapers, etc., or those who have money enough to buy advertising from newspapers, radios, or moving pictures. This Court should no more permit this invidious prohibition against the dissemination of ideas by speaking than it would permit a complete blackout of the press, the radio, or moving pictures. It is wise for all who cherish freedom of expression to reflect upon the plain fact that a holding that the audiences of public speakers can be constitutionally prohibited is not unrelated to a like prohibition in other fields. And the right to freedom of expression should be protected from absolute censorship for persons without, as for persons with, wealth and power. At least, such is the theory of our society.

I am aware that the ‘blare’ of this new method of carrying ideas is susceptible of abuse and may under certain circumstances constitute an intolerable nuisance. But ordinances can be drawn which adequately protect a community from unreasonable use of public speaking devices without absolutely denying to the community’s citizens all information that may be disseminated or received through this new avenue for trade in ideas. I would agree without reservation to the sentiment that ‘unrestrained use throughout a municipality of all sound amplifying devices would be intolerable.’ And of course cities may restrict or absolutely ban the use of amplifiers on busy streets in the business area. A city ordinance that reasonably restricts the volume of sound, or the hours during which an amplifier may be used, does not, in my mind, infringe the constitutionally protected area of free speech. It is because this ordinance does none of these things, but is instead an absolute prohibition of all uses of an amplifier on any of the streets of Trenton at any time that I must dissent.

I would reverse the judgment.

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