Edwards v. South Carolina

United States Supreme Court

372 U.S. 229, 83 S.Ct. 680, 9 L.Ed. 2d. 697 (1963)

 

            In this case the Court considers the issues of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech in the public forum in the context of a civil rights demonstration on the grounds of a state capitol.

 

Mr. Justice Stewart delivered the opinion of the Court.

 

            The petitioners, 187 in number, were convicted in a magistrate’s court in Columbia, South Carolina, of the common-law crime of breach of the peace. ...

 

            There was no substantial conflict in the trial evidence. Late in the morning of March 2, 1961, the petitioners, high school and college students of the Negro race, met at the Zion Baptist Church in Columbia. From there, at about noon, they walked in separate groups of about 15 to the South Carolina State House grounds, an area of two city blocks open to the general public. Their purpose was “to submit a protest to the citizens of South Carolina, along with the Legislative Bodies of South Carolina, our feelings and our dissatisfaction with the present condition of discriminatory actions against Negroes, in general, and to let them know that we were dissatisfied and that we would like for the laws which prohibited Negro privileges in this State to be removed.”

 

            Already on the State House grounds when the petitioners arrived were 30 or more law enforcement officers, who had advance knowledge that the petitioners were coming. Each group of petitioners entered the grounds through a driveway and parking area known in the record as the “horseshoe.” As they entered, they were told by the law enforcement officials that “they had a right, as a citizen, to go through the State House grounds, as any other citizen has, as long as they were peaceful.” During the next half hour or 45 minutes, the petitioners, in the same small groups, walked single file or two abreast in an orderly way through the grounds, each group carrying placards bearing such messages as “I am proud to be a Negro” and “Down with segregation.”

 

            During this time a crowd of some 200 to 300 onlookers had collected in the horseshoe area and on the adjacent sidewalks. There was no evidence to suggest that these onlookers were anything but curious, and no evidence at all of any threatening remarks, hostile gestures, or offensive language on the part of any member of the crowd. The City Manager testified that he recognized some of the onlookers, whom he did not identify, as “possible trouble makers,” but his subsequent testimony made clear that nobody among the crowd actually caused or threatened any trouble. There was no obstruction of pedestrian or vehicular traffic within the State House grounds. No vehicle was prevented from entering or leaving the horseshoe area. Although vehicular traffic at a nearby street intersection was slowed down somewhat, an officer was dispatched to keep traffic moving. There were a number of bystanders on the public sidewalks adjacent to the State House grounds, but they all moved on when asked to do so, and there was no impediment of pedestrian traffic. Police protection at the scene was at all times sufficient to meet any foreseeable possibility of disorder.

 

            In the situation and under the circumstances thus described, the police authorities advised the petitioners that they would be arrested if they did not disperse within 15 minutes. Instead of dispersing, the petitioners engaged in what the City manager described as “boisterous,” “loud,” and “flamboyant” conduct, which, as his later testimony made clear, consisted of listening to a “religious harangue” by one of their leaders, and loudly singing “The Star Spangled Banner” and other patriotic and religious songs, while stamping their feet and clapping their hands. After 15 minutes had passed, the police arrested the petitioners and marched them off to jail.

 

            Upon this evidence the state trial court convicted the petitioners of breach of the peace, and imposed sentences ranging from a $10 fine or five days in jail, to a $100 fine or 30 days in jail. In affirming the judgments, the Supreme Court of South Carolina said that under the law of that State the offense of breach of the peace “is not susceptible for exact definition,” but that the “general definition of the offense” is as follows:

 

            In general terms, a breach of the peace is a violation of public order, a disturbance of the public tranquility, by any act or conduct inciting to violence ... , it includes any violation of any law enacted to preserve peace and good order. It may consist of an act of violence or an act likely to produce violence. It is not necessary that the peace be actually broken to lay the foundation for a prosecution for this offense. If what is done is unjustifiable and unlawful, tending with sufficient directness to break the peace, no more is required. Nor is actual personal violence an essential element in the offense. ...

 

            By “peace,” as used in the law in this connection, is meant the tranquility enjoyed by citizens of a municipality or community where good order reigns among its members, which is the natural right of all persons in political society. ...

 

            ... It has long been established that these First Amendment freedoms are protected by the Fourteenth Amendment from invasion by the States. ... The circumstances in this case reflect an exercise of these basic constitutional rights in their most pristine and classic form. The petitioners felt aggrieved by laws of South Carolina which allegedly “prohibited Negro privileges in this State.” They peaceably assembled at the site of the State Government and there peaceably expressed their grievances “to the citizens of South Carolina, along with the Legislative Bodies of South Carolina.” Not until they were told by police officials that they must disperse on pain of arrest did they do more. Even then, they but sang patriotic and religious songs after one of their leaders had delivered a “religious harangue.” There was no violence or threat of violence on their part, or on the part of any member of the crowd watching them. Police protection was “ample.”

 

            This, therefore, was a far cry from the situation in Feiner v. New York [1951], ... where two policemen were faced with a crowd which was “pushing, shoving, and milling around,” ... where at least one member of the crowd “threatened violence if the police did not act,” ... where “the crowd was pressing closer around petitioner and the officer,” ... and where “the speaker passes the bounds of argument or persuasion and undertakes incitement to riot.” ... And the record is barren of any evidence of “fighting words.” ...

 

            We do not review in this case criminal convictions resulting from the even-handed application of a precise and narrowly drawn regulatory statute evincing a legislative judgment that certain specific conduct be limited or proscribed. If, for example, the petitioners had been convicted upon evidence that they had violated a law regulating traffic, or had disobeyed a law reasonably limiting the periods during which the State House grounds were open to the public, this would be a different case. ... These petitioners were convicted of an offense so generalized as to be, in the words of the South Carolina Supreme Court, “not susceptible of exact definition.” And they were convicted upon evidence which showed no more than that the opinions which they were peaceably expressing were sufficiently opposed to the views of the majority of the community to attract a crowd and necessitate police protection. ...

The Fourteenth Amendment does not permit a State to make criminal the peaceful expression of unpopular views. “[A] function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea. That is why freedom of speech ... is ... protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest. ... There is no room under our Constitution for a more restrictive view. For the alternative would lead to standardization of ideas either by legislatures, courts, or dominant political or community groups.” … [T]he courts of South Carolina have defined a criminal offense so as to permit conviction of the petitioners if their speech “stirred people to anger, invited public dispute, or brought about a condition of unrest. A conviction resting on any of those grounds may not stand.” …

For these reasons we conclude that these criminal convictions cannot stand.

 

Mr. Justice Clark, dissenting.

 

            ... Beginning, as did the South Carolina courts, with the premise that the petitioners were entitled to assemble and voice their dissatisfaction with segregation, the enlargement of constitutional protection for the conduct here is as fallacious as would be the conclusion that free speech necessarily includes the right to broadcast from a sound truck in the public street. ... Here the petitioners were permitted without hindrance to exercise their rights of free speech and assembly. Their arrests occurred only after a situation arose in which the law-enforcement officials on the scene considered that a dangerous disturbance was imminent. The County Court found that “[t]he evidence is clear that the officers were motivated solely by a proper concern for the preservation of order and prevention of further interference with traffic upon the public streets and sidewalks.” ...

 

            ... [I]n Feiner v. New York ... (1951), we upheld a conviction for breach of the peace in a situation no more dangerous than that found here. There the demonstration was conducted by only one person and the crowd was limited to approximately 80, as compared with the present lineup of some 200 demonstrators and 300 onlookers. There the petitioner was “endeavoring to arouse the Negro people against the whites, urging that they rise up in arms and fight for equal rights.” ... Only one person—in a city having an entirely different historical background—was exhorting adults. Here 200 youthful Negro demonstrators were being aroused to a “fever pitch” before a crowd of some 300 people who undoubtedly were hostile. Perhaps their speech was not so animated but in this setting their actions, their placards reading “You may jail our bodies but not our souls” and their chanting of “I Shall Not Be Moved,” accompanied by stamping feet and clapping hands, created a much greater danger of riot and disorder. It is my belief that anyone conversant with the almost spontaneous combustion in some Southern communities in such a situation will agree that the [city’s] action may well have averted a major catastrophe.

 

            The gravity of the danger here surely needs no further explication. The imminence of that danger has been emphasized at every stage of this proceeding, from the complaints charging that the demonstrations “tended directly to immediate violence” to the State Supreme Court’s affirmance on the authority of Feiner. ... This record, then, shows no steps backward from a standard of “clear and present danger.” But to say that the police may not intervene until the riot has occurred is like keeping out the doctor until the patient dies. I cannot subscribe to such a doctrine. ...