Supreme Court protected criticism of judiciary 70 years ago

Thursday, December 8, 2011

In the United States we possess the right of political speech, including the right to criticize our political leaders and institutions. Seventy years ago today — on Dec. 8, 1941 — the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that fundamental First Amendment principle in Bridges v. California.

The case consolidated two separate cases involving different parties and circumstances — labor leader Harry Bridges in one, and the Los Angeles Times in the other.

Bridges had sent a telegram criticizing a California state court decision in a dispute between two unions. The telegram threatened a strike if the state enforced the decision and was published in several newspapers. The Congress of Industrial Organizations union, Bridges wrote, did “not intend to allow state courts to override the majority vote of members in choosing its officers and representatives and to override the National Labor Relations Board.”

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times had printed several editorials urging a local court to imprison two labor leaders who had been found guilty of assaulting non-union truck drivers. The Times wrote that the judge “will make a serious mistake if the grants probation to Matthew Shannon and Kennan Holmes.”

The Superior Court of California cited Bridges for contempt for his telegram. Likewise it cited for contempt the Times Mirror Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times, as well as Managing Editor L.D. Hotchkiss. The court said Bridges’ and the newspaper’s comments on pending litigation would interfere with the orderly administration of justice.

After the California Supreme Court affirmed the findings of the contempt, Bridges and Times Mirror appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court decided 5-4 that the contempt citations violated the rights of political free speech.

Writing for the majority in Bridges v. California, Justice Hugo Black said the cases, “while growing out of different circumstances and concerning different parties, both relate to the scope of our national constitutional policy safeguarding free speech and a free press.”

Later in the opinion, he enlarged on the importance of free speech and the right to criticize government officials:

“The assumption that respect for the judiciary can be won by shielding judges from published criticism wrongly appraises the character of American public opinion. For it is a prized American privilege to speak one’s mind, although not always with perfect good taste, on all public institutions. And an enforced silence, however limited, solely in the name of preserving the dignity of the bench, would probably engender resentment, suspicion, and contempt much more than it would enhance respect.”

Black rejected the idea that the telegram or the editorials hindered the administration of justice or the judicial system in either case. Instead, he upheld the right of individuals and the press to criticize the institution.

The Court’s decision in Bridges v. California is viewed as a victory for both freedom of speech and freedom of the press. It respects the rights of individuals and the news media to criticize government leaders, institutions and policies.

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