Opinions & Commentaries

Chapter 285 of the Session Laws of Minnesota for the year 1925[1] provides for the abatement, as a public nuisance, of a "malicious, scandalous and defamatory newspaper, *702 magazine or other periodical." Section one of the Act is as follows:"Section 1. Any person who, as an individual, or as a member or employee of a firm, or association or organization, or as an officer, director, member or employee of a corporation, shall be engaged in the business of regularly or customarily producing, publishing or circulating, having in possession, selling or giving away.

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Petitioner after jury trial was found guilty of disorderly conduct in violation of a city ordinance of Chicago and fined. The case grew out of an address he delivered in an auditorium in Chicago under the auspices of the Christian Veterans of America. The meeting commanded considerable public attention. The auditorium was filled to capacity with over eight hundred persons present. Others were turned away. Outside of the auditorium a crowd o about one thousand persons gathered to protest against the meeting. A cordon of policemen was assigned to the meeting to maintain order; but they were not able to prevent several disturbances. The crowd outside was angry and turbulent. Petitioner in his speech condemned the conduct of the crowd outside and vigorously, if not viciously, criticized various political and racial groups whose activities he denounced as inimical to the nation's welfare.

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The petitioner was convicted upon information in the Municipal Court of Chicago of violating § 224a of the Illinois Criminal Code, Ill. Rev. Stat., 1949, c. 38, Div. 1, § 471. He was fined $200. The section provides:

"It shall be unlawful for any person, firm or corporation to manufacture, sell, or offer for sale, advertise or publish, present or exhibit in any public place in this state any lithograph, moving picture, play, drama or sketch, which publication or exhibition portrays depravity, criminality, unchastity, or lack of virtue of a class of citizens, of any race, color, creed or religion which said publication or exhibition exposes the citizens of any race, color, creed or religion to contempt, derision, or obloquy or which is productive of breach of the peace or riots. . . ."
Beauharnais challenged the statute as violating the liberty of speech and of the press guaranteed as against the States by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and as too vague, under the restrictions implicit in the *252 same Clause, to support conviction for crime. The Illinois courts rejected these contentions and sustained defendant's conviction. 408 Ill. 512, 97 N. E. 2d 343. We granted certiorari in view of the serious questions raised concerning the limitations imposed by the Fourteenth Amendment on the power of a State to punish utterances promoting friction among racial and religious groups. 342 U. S. 809.

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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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395 U.S. 444 (1969) BRANDENBURG v. OHIO.         No. 492. Supreme Court of United States.    Argued February 27, 1969. Decided June 9, 1969. APPEAL FROM THE SUPREME COURT OF OHIO.Allen Brown argued the cause for appellant. With him on the briefs were Norman Dorsen, Melvin L. Wulf, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Bernard A. Berkman.Leonard Kirschner argued the cause for appellee. With him on the brief was Melvin G. Rueger.Paul W. Brown, Attorney General of Ohio, pro se, and Leo J. Conway, Assistant Attorney General, filed a brief for the Attorney General as amicus curiae.PER CURIAM. The […]

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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 party 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, 315 U.S. 568 (1942), had been deemed unworthy of any First Amendment protection. Regulation of speech based on the content of the speech is presumptively invalid under the First Amendment. Consolidated Edison Co. of N.Y. v. Public Serv. Comm'n of N.Y., 447 U.S. 530 (1980). In some cases, however, such as "fighting words," defamation, and obscenity, the Court has held that the content of the speech is of such slight social value that the speech is unworthy of First Amendment protection. See, e.g., Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957) (obscenity); Beauharnais v. Illinois, 343 U.S. 250 (1952) (defamation); Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942) (fighting words).

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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 arises out of two separate cross-burning incidents. In May 1998, two men Richard J. Elliott and Jonathan OMara burned a cross in the yard of James Jubilee, an African-American neighbor of Elliott. In August 1998, Barry Elton Black leads a Ku Klux Klan rally on private property with the consent of the owner. Black burns a cross at the rally, which frightens a neighbor of the property owner. Prosecutors charge all three men with violating Virginias 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. Any person who shall violate any provision of this section shall be guilty of a Class 6 felony. All three men lose their criminal cases before the trial court. A jury convicts Elliott and Black in separate proceedings. OMara enters a conditional plea of guilty. This means he pleas guilty to the offense but reserves the right to challenge the constitutionality of the cross-burning law. The court of appeals affirms the convictions of the three men in two separate cases. The appeals court reasons that the statute only proscribes true threats, a category of expression not protected by the First Amendment. The appeals court also determines 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 consolidates, or combines, the two cases. In a 4-3 decision, the state supreme court reverses, finding the statute violates the First Amendment. The majority reasons that the statute regulates speech based on hostility to the underlying message of cross burning.

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For the past 20 years, the congregation of the Westboro Baptist Church has picketed military funerals to communicate its belief that God hates the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality, particularly in America’s military. The church’s picketing has also condemned the Catholic Church for scandals involving its clergy. Fred Phelps, who founded the church, and six Westboro Baptist parishioners (all relatives of Phelps) traveled to Maryland to picket the funeral of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq in the line of duty. The picketing took place on public land approximately 1,000 feet from the church where the funeral was held, in accordance with guidance from local law enforcement officers. The picketers peacefully displayed their signs—stating, e.g., “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “Fags Doom Nations,” “America is Doomed,” “Priests Rape Boys,” and “You’re Going to Hell”—for about 30 minutes before the funeral began. Matthew Snyder’s father (Snyder), petitioner here, saw the tops of the picketers’ signs when driving to the funeral, but did not learn what was written on the signs until watching a news broadcast later that night. Snyder filed a diversity action against Phelps, his daughters—who participated in the picketing—and the church (collectively Westboro) alleging, as relevant here, state tort claims of intentional infliction of emotional distress, intrusion upon seclusion, and civil conspiracy. A jury held Westboro liable for millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages. Westboro challenged the verdict as grossly excessive and sought judgment as a matter of law on the ground that the First Amendment fully protected its speech. The District Court reduced the punitive damages award, but left the verdict otherwise intact. The Fourth Circuit reversed, concluding that Westboro’s statements were entitled to First Amendment protection because those statements were on matters of public concern, were not provably false, and were expressed solely through hyperbolic rhetoric.

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