Brown v. Louisiana: First Amendment reminder from civil rights era

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Today, more than 45 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Henry Brown and four other African-American males could not be convicted for breach of peace for their peaceful, non-disruptive sit-in at a public library in Louisiana.

Brown and the other men, affiliated with the Congress on Racial Equality, went on a Saturday in March 1964 to the Audubon Regional Library in Clinton, La. The library operated under a segregated system that included a whites-only reading room and bookmobile. A separate bookmobile served — as the Supreme Court later wrote — “only Negroes.” Library cards issued to black people were stamped with the word “Negro.”

Brown walked into the whites-only adult reading room at the Clinton branch library, requested a book and sat down.  The other four men stood around him. When library staff asked them to leave and they refused, the sheriff came and arrested them.

Brown and the others were found guilty of breach of the peace. They unsuccessfully sought review of their case by the Louisiana Supreme Court. The only avenue left was the U.S. Supreme Court, which took the case.

On Feb. 23, 1966, the high court ruled 5-4 in Brown v. Louisiana that the convictions could not stand. Writing for the majority, Justice Abe Fortas wrote that First Amendment rights cover much more than verbal expression:

“They embrace appropriate types of action which certainly include the right in a peaceable and orderly manner to protest by silent and reproachful presence, in a place where the protestant has every right to be, the unconstitutional segregation of public facilities.”

Fortas continued: “The statute was deliberately and purposefully applied solely to terminate the reasonable, orderly, and limited exercise of the right to protest the unconstitutional segregation of a public facility.  Interference with this right, so exercised, by state action is intolerable under our Constitution.”

The controversy and ultimate Supreme Court victory show how important the First Amendment was during the civil rights movement, when protesters exercised their freedoms under the first 45 words of the Bill of Rights to advocate for a more just society.

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