379 U.S. 536 (1965), 24, Cox v. Louisiana

Docket Nº:No. 24
Citation:379 U.S. 536, 85 S.Ct. 453, 13 L.Ed.2d 471
Party Name:Cox v. Louisiana
Case Date:January 18, 1965
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 536

379 U.S. 536 (1965)

85 S.Ct. 453, 13 L.Ed.2d 471




No. 24

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 18, 1965

Argued October 21, 1964



Appellant was the leader of a civil rights demonstration in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, of 2,000 Negro students protesting segregation and the arrest and imprisonment the previous day of other Negro students who had participated in a protest against racial segregation. The group assembled a few blocks from the courthouse, where appellant identified himself to officers as the group's leader and explained the purpose of the demonstration. Following his refusal to disband the group, appellant led it in an orderly march toward the courthouse. In the vicinity of the courthouse, officers stopped appellant who, after explaining the purpose and program of the demonstration, was told by the Police Chief that he could hold the meeting so long as he confined it to the west side of the street. Appellant directed the group to the west sidewalk, across the street from the courthouse and 101 feet from its steps. There, the group, standing five feet deep and occupying almost the entire block but not obstructing the street, displayed signs and sang songs which evoked response from the students in the courthouse jail. Appellant addressed the group. The Sheriff, construing as inflammatory appellant's concluding exhortation to the students to "sit in" at uptown lunch counters, ordered dispersal of the group which, not being directly forthcoming, was effected by tear gas. Appellant was arrested the next day and was convicted of peace disturbance, obstructing public passages, and courthouse picketing. The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed the convictions, two of which (peace disturbance and obstructing public passages) are involved in this case; the third (courthouse picketing) being involved in No. 49, post at 559.


1. In arresting and convicting appellant under the circumstances disclosed by this record, Louisiana deprived him of his rights of free speech and free assembly in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229; Fields v. South Carolina, 375 U.S. 44, followed. Pp. 544-551.

2. The breach of the peace statute is unconstitutionally vague in its overly broad scope, for Louisiana has defined "breach of the peace" as "to agitate, to arouse from a state of repose, to molest, to interrupt, to hinder, to disquiet"; yet one of the very functions of free speech is to invite dispute. Terminiello v. Chicago,

Page 537

337 U.S. 1; Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359, followed. Pp. 551-552.

3. The practice in Baton Rouge of allowing local officials unfettered discretion in regulating the use of streets for peaceful parades and meetings notwithstanding the prohibitions contained in the statute against obstructing public passages abridged appellant's freedom of speech and assembly in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 553-558.

(a) The Louisiana Supreme Court construed the obstructing public passages statute as applying to public assemblies which do not have the specific purpose of obstructing traffic. P. 553.

(b) A State has the right to impose nondiscriminatory restrictions on travel on city streets. P. 554.

(c) The rights of free speech and assembly do not mean that everyone may address a group at any public place at any time. Pp. 554-555.

(d) Communication of ideas by picketing and marching on streets is not afforded the same kind of protection under the First and Fourteenth Amendments as is pure speech. P. 555.

(e) Although the statute, on its face, precludes all street assemblies and parades, the Baton Rouge authorities have not so enforced it, but, in their uncontrolled discretion, have permitted parades and street meetings. Pp. 555-557.

(f) The lodging of such broad discretion in public officials sanctions suppression of free expression and facilitates denial of equal protection. Pp. 557-558.

244 La. 1087, 156 So.2d 448, reversed.

GOLDBERG, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE GOLDBERG delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellant, the Reverend Mr. B. Elton Cox, the leader of a civil rights demonstration, was arrested and charged

Page 538

with four offenses under Louisiana law -- criminal conspiracy, disturbing the peace, obstructing public passages, and picketing before a courthouse. In a consolidated trial before a judge without a jury, and on the same set of facts, he was acquitted of criminal conspiracy, but convicted of the other three offenses. He was sentenced to serve four months in jail and pay a $200 fine for disturbing the peace, to serve five months in jail and pay a $500 fine for obstructing public passages, and to serve one year in jail and pay a $5,000 fine for picketing before a courthouse. The sentences were cumulative.

In accordance with Louisiana procedure, the Louisiana Supreme Court reviewed the "disturbing the peace" and "obstructing public passages" convictions on certiorari, and the "courthouse picketing" conviction on appeal. The Louisiana court, in two judgments, affirmed all three convictions. 244 La. 1087, 156 So.2d 448; 245 La. 303, 158 So.2d 172. Appellant filed two separate appeals to this Court from these judgments contending that the three statutes under which he was convicted were unconstitutional on their face and as applied. We noted probable jurisdiction of both appeals, 377 U.S. 921. This case, No. 24, involves the convictions for disturbing the peace and obstructing public passages, and No. 49 concerns the conviction for picketing before a courthouse.



On December 14, 1961, 23 students from Southern University, a Negro college, were arrested in downtown Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for picketing stores that maintained segregated lunch counters. [85 S.Ct. 456] This picketing, urging a boycott of those stores, was part of a general protest movement against racial segregation, directed by the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, a civil rights

Page 539

organization. The appellant, an ordained Congregational minister, the Reverend Mr. B. Elton Cox, a Field Secretary of CORE, was an advisor to this movement. On the evening of December 14, appellant and Ronnie Moore, student president of the local CORE chapter, spoke at a mass meeting at the college. The students resolved to demonstrate the next day in front of the courthouse in protest of segregation and the arrest and imprisonment of the picketers who were being held in the parish jail located on the upper floor of the courthouse building.

The next morning, about 2,000 students left the campus, which was located approximately five miles from downtown Baton Rouge. Most of them had to walk into the city, since the drivers of their busses were arrested. Moore was also arrested at the entrance to the campus while parked in a car equipped with a loudspeaker, and charged with violation of an anti-noise statute. Because Moore was immediately taken off to jail and the vice-president of the CORE chapter was already in jail for picketing, Cox felt it his duty to take over the demonstration and see that it was carried out as planned. He quickly drove to the city "to pick up this leadership and keep things orderly."

When Cox arrived, 1,500 of the 2,000 students were assembling at the site of the old State Capitol building, two and one-half blocks from the courthouse. Cox walked up and down cautioning the students to keep to one side of the sidewalk while getting ready for their march to the courthouse. The students circled the block in a file two or three abreast occupying about half of the sidewalk. The police had learned of the proposed demonstration the night before from news media and other sources. Captain Font of the City Police Department and Chief Kling of the Sheriff's office, two high-ranking subordinate officials, approached the group and spoke to Cox at the northeast corner of the capitol

Page 540

grounds. Cox identified himself as the group's leader, and, according to Font and Kling, he explained that the students were demonstrating to protest "the illegal arrest of some of their people who were being held in jail." The version of Cox and his witnesses throughout was that they came not "to protest just the arrest, but . . . [also] to protest the evil of discrimination." Kling asked Cox to disband the group and "take them back from whence they came." Cox did not acquiesce in this request, but told the officers that they would march by the courthouse, say prayers, sing hymns, and conduct a peaceful program of protest. The officer repeated his request to disband, and Cox again refused. Kling and Font then returned to their car in order to report by radio to the Sheriff and Chief of Police, who were in the immediate vicinity; while this was going on, the students, led by Cox, began their walk toward the courthouse.

They walked in an orderly and peaceful file, two or three abreast, one block east, stopping on the way for a red traffic light. In the center of this block, they were joined by another group of students. The augmented group, now totaling about 2,000,1 turned the corner and proceeded south, coming to a halt in the next block opposite the courthouse.

As Cox, still at the head of the group, approached the vicinity of the courthouse, he was stopped by Captain Font and Inspector Trigg and brought to Police Chief Wingate White, who was [85 S.Ct. 457] standing in the middle of St. Louis Street. The Chief then inquired as to the purpose of the demonstration. Cox, reading from a prepared paper, outlined his program to White, stating that it would include a singing of the Star Spangled Banner

Page 541

and a "freedom song," recitation of the Lord's Prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, and a short speech. White testified that he told Cox that "he must confine" the demonstration "to the west...

To continue reading