372 U.S. 229 (1963), 86, Edwards v. South Carolina

Docket Nº:No. 86
Citation:372 U.S. 229, 83 S.Ct. 680, 9 L.Ed.2d 697
Party Name:Edwards v. South Carolina
Case Date:February 25, 1963
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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372 U.S. 229 (1963)

83 S.Ct. 680, 9 L.Ed.2d 697

Edwards

v.

South Carolina

No. 86

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 25, 1963

Argued December 13, 1962

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF SOUTH CAROLINA

Syllabus

Feeling aggrieved by laws of South Carolina which allegedly "prohibited Negro privileges," petitioners, 187 Negro high school and college students, peacefully assembled at the site of the State Government and there peacefully expressed their grievances "to the citizens of South Carolina, along with the Legislative Bodies of South Carolina." When told by police officials that they must disperse within 15 minutes on pain of arrest, they failed to do so, and sang patriotic and religious songs after one of their leaders had delivered a "religious harangue." There was no violence or threat of violence on their part or on the part of any member of the crowd watching them, but petitioners were arrested and convicted of the common law crime of breach of the peace, which the State Supreme Court said "is not susceptible of exact definition."

Held: In arresting, convicting and punishing petitioners under the circumstances disclosed by this record, South Carolina infringed their rights of free speech, free assembly and freedom to petition for a redress of grievances -- rights guaranteed by the First Amendment and protected by the Fourteenth Amendment from invasion by the States. Pp. 229-238.

239 S.C. 339, 123 S.E.2d 247, reversed.

STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

The petitioners, 187 in number, were convicted in a magistrate's court in Columbia, South Carolina, of the

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common law crime of breach of the peace. Their convictions were ultimately affirmed by the South Carolina Supreme Court, 239 S.C. 339, 123 S.E.2d 247. We granted certiorari, 369 U.S. 870, to consider the claim that these convictions cannot be squared with the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

There was no substantial conflict in the trial evidence.1 Late in the morning of March 2, 1961, the petitioners, high school and college students of the Negro race, met at the Zion Baptist Church in Columbia. From there, at about noon, they walked in separate [83 S.Ct. 681] groups of about 15 to the South Carolina State House grounds, an area of two city blocks open to the general public. Their purpose was

to submit a protest to the citizens of South Carolina, along with the Legislative Bodies of South Carolina, our feelings and our dissatisfaction with the present condition of discriminatory actions against Negroes in general, and to let them know that we were dissatisfied, and that we would like for the laws which prohibited Negro privileges in this State to be removed.

Already on the State House grounds when the petitioners arrived were 30 or more law enforcement officers, who had advance knowledge that the petitioners were coming.2 Each group of petitioners entered the grounds through a driveway and parking area known in the record as the "horseshoe." As they entered, they were told by the law enforcement officials that "they had a right, as a citizen, to go through the State House grounds, as any other citizen has, as long as they were peaceful." During

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the next half hour or 45 minutes, the petitioners, in the same small groups, walked single file or two abreast in an orderly way,3 through the grounds, each group carrying placards bearing such messages as "I am proud to be a Negro" and "Down with segregation."

During this time, a crowd of some 200 to 300 onlookers had collected in the horseshoe area and on the adjacent sidewalks. There was no evidence to suggest that these onlookers were anything but curious, and no evidence at all of any threatening remarks, hostile gestures, or offensive language on the part of any member of the crowd. The City Manager testified that he recognized some of the onlookers, whom he did not identify, as "possible troublemakers," but his subsequent testimony made clear that nobody among the crowd actually caused or threatened any trouble.4 There was no obstruction of pedestrian

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or vehicular [83 S.Ct. 682] traffic within the State House grounds.5 No vehicle was prevented from entering or leaving the horseshoe area. Although vehicular traffic at a nearby street intersection was slowed down somewhat, an officer was dispatched to keep traffic moving. There were a number of bystanders on the public sidewalks adjacent to the State House grounds, but they all moved on when asked to do so, and there was no impediment of pedestrian traffic.6 Police protection at the scene was at all

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times sufficient to meet any foreseeable possibility of disorder.7

In the situation and under the circumstances thus described, the police authorities advised the petitioners that they would be arrested if they did not disperse within 15 minutes.8 Instead of dispersing, the petitioners engaged in what the City Manager described as "boisterous," "loud," and "flamboyant" conduct, which, as his later testimony made clear, consisted of listening to a "religious harangue" by one of their leaders, and loudly singing "The Star Spangled Banner" and other patriotic and religious songs, while stamping their feet and clapping their hands. After 15 minutes had passed, the police arrested the petitioners and marched them off to jail.9

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Upon this evidence, the state trial court convicted the petitioners of breach of the peace, and imposed sentences ranging from a $10 fine or five days in jail to a $100 fine or 30 days in jail. In affirming the judgments, the Supreme Court of South Carolina said that, under the law of that State, the offense of breach of the [83 S.Ct. 683] peace "is not susceptible of exact definition," but that the "general definition of the offense" is as follows:

In general terms, a breach of the peace is a violation of public order, a disturbance of the public tranquility, by any act or conduct inciting to violence . . . , it includes any violation of any law enacted to preserve peace and good order. It may consist of an act of violence or an act likely to produce violence. It is not necessary that the peace be actually broken to lay the foundation for a prosecution for this offense. If what is done is unjustifiable and unlawful, tending with sufficient directness to break the peace, no more is required. Nor is actual personal violence an essential element in the offense. . . .

By "peace," as used in the law in this connection, is meant the tranquility enjoyed by citizens of a municipality or community where good order reigns among its members, which is the natural right of all persons in political society.

239 S.C. at 343-344, 123 S.E.2d at 249.

The petitioners contend that there was a complete absence of any evidence of the commission of this offense, and that they were thus denied one of the most basic elements

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of due process of law. Thompson v. Louisville, 362 U.S. 199; see Garner v. Louisiana, 368 U.S. 157; Taylor v. Louisiana, 370 U.S. 154. Whatever the merits of this contention, we need not pass upon it in the present case. The state courts have held that the petitioners' conduct constituted breach of the peace under state law, and we may accept their decision as binding upon us to that extent. But it nevertheless remains our duty in a case such as this to make an independent examination of the whole record. Blackburn v. Alabama, 361 U.S. 199, 205, n. 5; Pennekamp v. Florida, 328 U.S. 331, 335; Fiske v. Kansas, 274 U.S. 380, 385-386. And it is clear to us that, in arresting, convicting, and punishing the petitioners under the circumstances disclosed by this record, South Carolina infringed the petitioners' constitutionally protected rights of free speech, free assembly, and freedom to petition for redress of their grievances.

It has long been established that these First Amendment freedoms are protected by the Fourteenth Amendment from invasion by the States. Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652; Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357; Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359; De Jonge v. Oregon, 299 U.S. 353; Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296. The circumstances in this case reflect an exercise of these basic constitutional rights in their most pristine and classic form. The petitioners felt aggrieved by laws of South Carolina which allegedly "prohibited Negro privileges in this State." They peaceably assembled at the site of the State Government,10 and there peaceably expressed their grievances "to the citizens of South Carolina, along with the Legislative Bodies of South Carolina."

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Not until they were told by police officials that they must disperse on pain of arrest did they do more. Even then, they but sang patriotic and religious songs after one of their leaders had delivered a "religious harangue." There was no violence or threat [83 S.Ct. 684] of violence on their part, or on the part of any member of the crowd watching them. Police protection was "ample."

This, therefore, was a far cry from the situation in Feiner v. New York, 340 U.S. 315, where two policemen were faced with a crowd which was "pushing, shoving and milling around," id. at 317, where at least one member of the crowd "threatened violence if the police did not act," id. at 317, where "the crowd was pressing closer around petitioner and the officer," id. at 318, and where "the speaker passes the bounds of argument or persuasion and undertakes incitement to riot." Id. at 321. And the record is barren of any evidence of "fighting words." See Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568.

We do not review in this case criminal convictions resulting from the evenhanded application of a precise and narrowly drawn regulatory statute evincing a legislative judgment that certain specific conduct be limited or proscribed. If, for example, the petitioners had been...

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