Opinions & Commentaries

A Minnesota statute passed in 1925 provided for the "abatement" of a "malicious, scandalous and defamatory newspaper, magazine or other periodical." Near v. State of Minnesota ex rel. Olson, 283 U.S. 697, 701-02 (1931). J.M. Near published a newspaper called The Saturday Press, which contained articles complaining of the mayor, district attorney, and chief of police, among others, and alleging a Jewish gambling conspiracy. As a result, the county attorney filed an action against the paper to prevent it from publishing any more issues. Near argued that the law violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution.

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When Arthur Terminiello delivered a speech in an auditorium in Chicago, the auditorium was filled to capacity with over eight hundred people. Outside of the speech, almost one thousand people gathered to protest the speech. Although police were assigned there to maintain order, they could not prevent several disturbances. In his speech, Terminiello condemned the conduct of the crowd outside and criticized various political and racial groups whose activities he denounced as harmful to the nation’s welfare. Terminiello was found guilty of disorderly conduct under a Chicago city ordinance prohibiting “breach[es] of the peace” and subsequently fined.

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Beauharnais produced a leaflet that called on the Mayor and City Council of Chicago “to halt the further encroachment, harassment and invasion of white people, their property, neighborhoods and persons, by the Negro.” The leaflet also called for the use of violence to further this goal. Beauharnais was charged under an Illinois law prohibiting exposing “any race, color, creed or religion to contempt, derision, or obloquy[.]”

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Petitioners are identified with a "white supremacist" organization called the National States Rights Party. They held a public assembly or rally near the courthouse steps in the town of Princess Anne, the county seat of Somerset County, Maryland, in the evening of August 6, 1966. The authorities did not attempt to interfere with the rally. Because of the tense atmosphere which developed as the meeting progressed, about 60 state policemen were brought in, including some from a nearby county. They were held in readiness, but for tactical reasons only a few were in evidence at the scene of the rally.

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Brandenburg was convicted of violating a criminal law that prohibited speech that advocates crime, sabotage, violence, and other similar acts after he spoke at a KKK rally. The Supreme Court found that the law infringed on Brandenburg's First Amendment rights, and created the imminent lawless action test. In order for speech to fall out of First Amendment protection, it must 1) be directed at producing imminent lawless action and 2) it is likely to produce such action.

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The Illinois Supreme Court denied a stay of the trial court's injunction prohibiting petitioners from marching, walking, or parading in the uniform of the National Socialist Party of America or otherwise displaying the swastika, and from distributing pamphlets or displaying materials inciting or promoting hatred against Jews or persons of any faith, ancestry, or race, and also denied leave for an expedited appeal. Held: 1. The Illinois Supreme Court's order is a final judgment for purposes of this Court's jurisdiction, since it finally determined the merits of petitioners' claim that the injunction will deprive them of First Amendment rights during the period of appellate review. 2. The State must allow a stay where procedural safeguards, including immediate appellate review, are not provided, and the Illinois Supreme Court's order denied this right. Certiorari granted; reversed and remanded.

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David Dawson was convicted of first degree murder and various other crimes. During the sentencing hearing, the prosecution introduced evidence that Mr. Dawson was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white racist prison gang. This evidence was not clearly relevant to any other evidence offered by the prosecution or the defense. The trial court ultimately imposed the death penalty. The Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence. The First Amendment protects an individual's right to join groups and associate with others holding similar beliefs. Aptheker v. Secretary of State, 378 U.S. 500 (1964). The Constitution, however, does not erect a per se barrier to the admission of relevant evidence concerning one's beliefs and associations at sentencing simply because those beliefs and associations are protected by the First Amendment. United States v. Abel, 469 U.S. 45 (1984).

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In mid-1990, a white juvenile in St. Paul was arrested for burning a cross inside the fenced yard of a black family. The juvenile was charged with violating St. Paul's Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance, which prohibited the placement of any symbol on public or private property that aroused anger in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, or gender. The juvenile moved to dismiss this charge, claiming that it was overbroad and impermissibly content-based under the First Amendment. The trial court granted this motion. The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed, holding that the ordinance prohibited only “fighting words,” which, since the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942), had been deemed unworthy of any First Amendment protection.

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Respondent Todd Mitchell's sentence for aggravated battery was enhanced because he intentionally selected his victim on account of the victim's race. The question presented in this case is whether this penalty enhancement is prohibited by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. We hold that it is not.

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This case arose out of two separate cross-burning incidents. In May 1998, Richard J. Elliott and Jonathan O’Mara burned a cross in the yard of James Jubilee, Elliott’s black neighbor. In August 1998, Barry Elton Black led a Ku Klux Klan rally on private property with the consent of the property’s owner. Black burned a cross at the rally, which frightened a relative of the property owner who watched from a nearby house. Prosecutors charged all three men with violating Virginia’s cross-burning statute, which provides: “It shall be unlawful for any person or persons, with the intent of intimidating any person or group of persons, to burn, or to cause to be burned, a cross on the property of another, a highway or other public place.” All three men lost their criminal cases before the trial court. The court of appeals affirmed the convictions of the three men in two separate cases. The appeals court reasoned that the statute only proscribes true threats, a category of expression not protected by the First Amendment. The appeals court also determined that the burning of the cross is a form of fighting words, another category of speech not protected by the First Amendment. On appeal, the Virginia Supreme Court consolidated the two cases. In a 4-3 decision, the state supreme court reversed, finding the statute violated the First Amendment. The majority reasoned that the statute regulated speech based on hostility to the underlying message of cross burning.

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The Westboro Baptist Church picketed on public land one thousand feet from the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who had been killed in the line of duty in Iraq, with signs with statements that read “Fags Doom Nations,” “You’re Going to Hell,” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Snyder’s father sued under state civil law, including for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

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