ACLU challenges Louisiana’s anti-communist propaganda law

Wednesday, December 22, 1999

A law professor, an attorney in private practice and a publisher of an anti-capitalist newsletter have filed a lawsuit asking a federal court to strike down a Louisiana law that makes it a crime to possess or distribute communist “propaganda.”

The law, passed in 1962, provides: “It shall be a felony for any person to knowingly, willfully and intentionally deliver, distribute, disseminate or store communist propaganda in the state of Louisiana except under the specific exemptions hereinafter provided.”

The law provides for criminal penalties of up to six years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine.

An exemption covers material obtained “for the purpose of personal or institutional use in the due course of the educational process.”

The plaintiffs, who are represented by cooperating attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, include John Kramer, a professor and former dean of Tulane University School of Law, attorney Alfred Shapiro and Mike Howells, publisher of The Bayou Worker.

The lawsuit, filed on Dec. 15, contends that the plaintiffs “have become aware that materials that might qualify as Communist Propaganda under the terms of the Statute are readily available by means of the Internet.”

The lawsuit alleges that the statute “constitutes unlawful censorship” under the First Amendment.

“The ACLU believes in the freedom of thought, inquiry or advocacy by any individual or group regarding a specific economic, social or political philosophy,” Joe Cook, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said in a news release. “That position, grounded solely on the free-speech principle, means no governmental restriction unless there exists a clear and present danger of illegal action.”

Cook said: “This law, which is a remnant of the McCarthy era, is scary. I mean, people can be punished under this law for free speech that challenges the status quo.”

Marjorie Esman, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said: “This law is absolutely unconstitutional. It is clearly content-based, unenforceable and vague. I am surprised that no one had ever attacked this law before now.”

The plaintiffs in Kramer v. Foster have asked the court to declare the law unconstitutional, issue an injunction preventing its enforcement and award attorney fees and court costs. The suit names Gov. Murphy J. “Mike” Foster as the defendant.

A call placed to the governor's office was not returned.