Fred Shuttlesworth’s enduring First Amendment legacy

Friday, October 7, 2011

Society lost not only a giant of the civil rights movement with the death this week of the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, but also a man who made an indelible impression on First Amendment law.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shuttlesworth v. City of Birmingham (1969) bears the name of a genuine hero who survived bombings, beatings and brutality at the hands of racists and government officials intent on preserving a segregated society.

The case began on Good Friday, April 12, 1963, when Shuttlesworth and two other ministers led 52 African-Americans on a march down city sidewalks in Birmingham, Ala. They did not obstruct traffic.

They did, however, arouse the ire of the police, who arrested them after they had walked only four blocks. Shuttlesworth was charged with violating an ordinance that required individuals to obtain a permit before engaging in a parade or procession on public streets.

Under this ordinance, Birmingham Sheriff Bull Connor and other public officials could deny Shuttlesworth a license by claiming that the protest would harm “public welfare, safety, health, decency, good order, morals or convenience.”

Shuttlesworth was convicted in an Alabama trial court. After a state appeals court reversed the conviction, the Alabama Supreme Court reinstated it. The case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously reversed Alabama’s highest court and ruled in the minister’s favor.

The Supreme Court determined that the parade-permit law constituted a classic prior restraint on expression by imposing too high a hurdle on gatherings like Shuttleworth’s. Justice Potter Stewart wrote that “a law subjecting the exercise of First Amendment freedoms to the prior restraint of a license, without narrow, objective, and definite standards to guide the licensing authority, is unconstitutional.”

Stewart also reiterated that parading and picketing are forms of protected expression under the First Amendment.

Through the years a wide range of litigants who engaged in parades, picketing, processions, marches and other demonstrations have cited Fred Shuttlesworth’s Supreme Court victory as a key precedent.

Shuttleworth died Oct. 5 in Birmingham at age 89. But the civil rights hero’s First Amendment legacy lives and thrives.

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