Today in history: 2 losses for First Amendment

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Today is a significant date in First Amendment history. On Jan. 31, the U.S. Supreme Court decided two important cases, one in 1944 relating to religious freedom, the other in 1949 on freedom of speech. In both cases, the Court ruled 5-4 against the First Amendment claimant and in favor of the government.

In Prince v. Massachusetts (1944), Jehovah’s Witnesses minister Sarah Prince challenged her conviction for violating child labor laws. State law prohibited boys under 12 and girls under 18 from distributing newspapers or periodicals. Prince was the guardian of 9-year-old Betty Simmons, who distributed religious newsletters. Prince and Simmons were ordained ministers in their faith and argued that the law infringed on their religious-liberty rights. Prince also contended that the law invaded her rights as a parent to rear her child as she saw fit. The high court ruled in favor of the state.

Writing for the majority, Justice Wiley Rutledge reasoned that “the family itself is not beyond regulation in the public interest, as against a claim of religious liberty.” He added: “We think that with reference to the public proclaiming of religion, upon the streets and in other similar public places, the power of the state to control the conduct of children reaches beyond the scope of its authority over adults … and the rightful boundary of its power has not been crossed in this case.”

Justice Frank Murphy wrote a dissenting opinion, emphasizing the importance of religious freedom and particularly the rights of religious minorities who are often subject to intolerance and oppression. “Religious freedom is too sacred a right to be restricted or prohibited in any degree without convincing proof that a legitimate interest of the state is in grave danger,” he wrote.

Five years to the day, the Supreme Court decided another important First Amendment case. In Kovacs v. Cooper (1949), Charles Kovac challenged his conviction for violating a Trenton, N.J., ordinance prohibiting the use of sound trucks that emitted “loud and raucous” noises on public streets.

Kovacs operated a sound truck that broadcast music and his comments about a labor dispute. He argued that the noise ordinance violated his right to free speech. Writing for the high court majority, Justice Stanley Reed said the ordinance protected the rights of homeowners from loud sound that might threaten their privacy and enjoyment of their homes. He recognized the value of free-speech, but explained that “it is a permissible exercise of legislative discretion to bar sound trucks with broadcasts of public interest, amplified to a loud and raucous volume, from the public ways of municipalities.” He noted that the ordinance did not limit the dissemination of ideas or even the content of speech. “There is no restriction upon the communication of ideas or discussion of issues by the human voice, by newspapers, by pamphlets, by dodgers.”

Justice Hugo Black authored a dissent in which he criticized the majority for failing to protect the free-speech rights of those who didn’t have access to convey their views on the radio or in the newspaper. He noted that “public speaking today without sound amplifiers is a wholly inadequate way to reach the people on a large scale.” Black added: “And the right to freedom of expression should be protected from absolute censorship for persons without, as for persons with, wealth and power. At least, such is the theory of our society.”

Tags: ,