75 years ago, high court ruling protected peaceful assembly

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Seventy-five years ago — on Jan. 4, 1937 — a significant milestone for freedom of assembly was achieved.

On this date the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in De Jonge v. Oregon that state government officials could not punish individuals for conducting peaceful meetings – even by members of a dissident political party.

In July 1934, Portland police arrested Dirk De Jonge and several others for organizing a meeting of the Communist Party. They made the arrests under a state criminal-syndicalism law, which prohibited the advocating of crime, violence or “any unlawful acts or methods as a means of accomplishing or effecting industrial or political change or revolution.”

De Jonge apparently engaged in no planning of crime or violence; he merely participated in a meeting of communists.

De Jonge contended that his arrest violated his constitutional rights to freedom of assembly and due process of law. The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, agreed with De Jonge and ruled in his favor.

Significantly, Hughes ruled that freedom of assembly was a fundamental right that must be extended to apply to state and local governments, just like freedom of speech and press.

Originally the First Amendment — and the rest of the Bill of Rights — limited only the federal government.  But in the 1920s the Supreme Court ruled that the 14th Amendment’s due-process clause provided the ideal vehicle to extend those First Amendment freedoms to state and local governments. In his De Jonge opinion, Hughes did the same thing for freedom of assembly.

“Freedom of speech and of the press are fundamental rights which are safeguarded by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution,” he wrote. “The right of peaceable assembly is a right cognate to those of free speech and free press and is equally fundamental.”

Hughes also declared near the end of his opinion: “The holding of meetings for peaceable political action cannot be proscribed.”

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