This case involves the validity, under the Constitution of the United States, of an act of the State of Nebraska, approved July 3d, 1903, entitled "An act to prevent and punish the desecration of the flag of the United States."[1]

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The publisher of certain articles and a cartoon, which were intended to embarrass the Supreme Court of Colorado and reflected upon the motives and conduct of the Supreme Court of Colorado in cases still pending, was found guilty of contempt and fined by the Supreme Court of Colorado. The publisher argued that his Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated and that his conviction should be reversed. — In this his first free-speech opinion while sitting on the High Court, Holmes declined to hold that the First Amendment applied to the states. He declared: "We leave undecided the question whether there is to be found in the 14th Amendment a prohibition similar to that in the 1st. But even if we were to assume that freedom of speech and freedom of the press were protected from abridgments on the part not only of the United States but also of the states, still we should be far from the conclusion that the plaintiff in error would have us reach. In the first place, the main purpose of such constitutional provisions is 'to prevent all such previous restraints upon publications as had been practised by other governments,' and they do not prevent the subsequent punishment of such as may be deemed contrary to the public welfare. Com. v. Blanding, [cites]; Respublica v. Oswald, [cites]. The preliminary freedom extends as well to the false as to the true; the subsequent punishment may extend as well to the true as to the false. This was the law of criminal libel apart from statute in most cases, if not in all." — The senior Justice Harlan rejected Holmes' view. Declared Harlan: "I go further and hold that the privileges of free speech and of a free press, belonging to every citizen of the United States, constitute essential parts of every man's liberty, and are protected against violation by that clause of the 14th Amendment forbidding a state to deprive any person of his liberty without due process of law. It is, I think, impossible to conceive of liberty, as secured by the Constitution against hostile action, whether by the nation or by the states, which does not embrace the right to enjoy free speech and the right to have a free press."

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