Legal Principle at Issue
Whether a Birmingham city ordinance, which gave public officials the unbridled authority to issue or withhold parade permits without reference to the legitimate regulation of public streets and sidewalks, unconstitutionally abridged the petitioner’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
The Supreme Court of the United States overruled the Supreme Court of Alabama, reversing the conviction.
The General Code of Birmingham allowed the city to refuse a permit if “in its judgment the public welfare, peace, safety, health, decency, good order, morals or convenience require that [the permit] be refused.” Civil rights marchers were arrested in violation of this law.
Importance of Case
The Supreme Court ruled that permitting schemes without objective criteria and narrow tailoring are unconstitutional. The Court noted that the ordinance “fell squarely within the ambit of the many decisions of this Court over the last 30 years, holding that a law subjecting the exercise of First Amendment freedoms the prior restraint of a license, without narrow, objective, and definite standards to guide the licensing authority, is unconstitutional.” The Court recognized that marching, as conduct, is not awarded the same kind of protection as pure speech but is still a means of expression protected by the First Amendment.