383 U.S. 131 (1966), 41, Brown v. Louisiana

Docket NºNo. 41
Citation383 U.S. 131, 86 S.Ct. 719, 15 L.Ed.2d 637
Party NameBrown v. Louisiana
Case DateFebruary 23, 1966
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Page 131

383 U.S. 131 (1966)

86 S.Ct. 719, 15 L.Ed.2d 637




No. 41

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 23, 1966

Argued December 6, 1965



For the purpose of peaceably protesting the denial of their constitutional right to equal treatment in a public facility, petitioners, five Negroes, entered the public room of a regional library operated on a segregated basis by the Louisiana parishes where they lived and another parish. No one was in the library room except petitioners and the library assistant. Petitioner Brown requested a book. The library assistant, after checking, advised that the library did not have the book, but that she would request it from the State Library and that Brown would be notified upon its receipt. (The book was mailed to him at a later date, with instructions to mail it back or deliver it to the library's "Blue" bookmobile, a facility reserved for Negroes only.) Thereafter the library assistant asked petitioners to leave. But, for the purpose of manifesting silent protest against the library's segregation policy, Brown sat down and the others stood near him. There was no noise or boisterous talking. The branch librarian also asked petitioners to leave, but they remained. In about 10 or 15 minutes from the time petitioners entered the library, the sheriff and deputies arrived, having been forewarned, asked petitioners to leave, and were told that they would not. The sheriff then arrested them. Subsequently, petitioners were convicted for violating the Louisiana breach of the peace statute, which makes it a crime "with intent to provoke a breach of the peace, or under circumstances such that a breach of the peace may be occasioned thereby" to crowd or congregate in a public building and fail or refuse to disperse or move on when ordered to do so by a law enforcement officer or other authorized person.

Held: The decision below is reversed. Pp. 133-151.


1. There is not the slightest evidence to sustain application of the breach of the peace statute to petitioners, since there was nothing to indicate an intent by them to provoke a breach of the peace and there were no circumstances to indicate that such a breach might be occasioned, the demonstration having been peaceful, orderly, and unprovocative, and no patrons having been

Page 132

present in the library. Petitioners' conduct was considerably less disruptive than in any of the preceding three situations in which this Court invalidated convictions under the same Louisiana statute or its predecessor, Garner v. Louisiana, 36 U.S. 157; Taylor v. Louisiana, 370 U.S. 154; and Cox v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536. Pp. 133-135, 139-140.

2. The rights of peaceable and orderly protest which petitioners were exercising under the First and Fourteenth Amendments are not confined to verbal expression, but embrace other types of expression, including appropriate silent and reproachful presence, such as petitioners used here. Therefore, even if such action came within the statute, it would have to be held that the statute could not constitutionally reach petitioners' actions in the circumstances of this case. Pp. 141-142.

3. Regulation of libraries and other public facilities must be reasonable and nondiscriminatory, and may not be used as a pretext for punishing those who exercise their constitutional rights. P. 143.

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN concluded that:

The Louisiana breach of the peace statute is unconstitutional for overbreadth, as this Court held in Cox v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536. No intervening limiting construction or legislative revision of the statute, and no circumstance of this case, make that declaration of invalidity any less controlling here. Pp. 143-150.

MR. JUSTICE WHITE concluded that:

Petitioners' convictions must be reversed, since, on this record, it is shown that they were making only normal and authorized use of the public library by remaining 10 minutes after ordering a book. Pp. 150-151.


Page 133

FORTAS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE FORTAS announced the judgment of the Court and an opinion in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE and MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS join.

This is the fourth time in little more than four years that this Court has reviewed convictions by the Louisiana courts for alleged violations, in a civil rights context, of that State's breach of the peace statute. In the three preceding cases, the convictions were reversed. Garner v. Louisiana, 368 U.S. 157, decided in December, 1961, involved sit-ins by Negroes at lunch counters catering only to whites. Taylor v. Louisiana, 370 U.S. 154, decided in June, 1962, concerned a sit-in by Negroes in a waiting room at a bus depot, reserved "for whites only." Cox v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536, decided in January, 1965, involved the leader of some 2,000 Negroes who demonstrated in the vicinity of a courthouse and jail to protest the arrest of fellow demonstrators. In each of these cases, the demonstration was orderly. In each, the purpose of the participants was to protest the denial to Negroes of rights guaranteed them by state and federal constitutions and to petition their governments for redress of grievances. In none was there evidence that the participants planned or intended disorder. In none were there circumstances which might have led to a breach of the peace chargeable to the protesting participants.1

Page 134

In Garner, the Court found the record utterly barren of evidence to support convictions under Title 14, Article 103(7) of the Louisiana Criminal Code, which then defined the crime of "disturbing the peace" in specific detail.2 The record contained no evidence of boisterous or disorderly actions or of "passive conduct likely to cause a public disturbance." 368 U.S. at 173-174. In Taylor, which arose under the Louisiana statute as amended to read in its present form, see p. 138, infra, the Court, in a per curiam opinion, set aside the convictions despite evidence of "restlessness" among the white onlookers. Finally, in Cox, the Court held that the fact would not permit application of Louisiana's breach of the peace statute despite the large scale of the demonstrations and the fact that petitioner's speech occasioned "grumbling" on the part of white onlookers. Petitioner and the demonstrators as a group, though "well behaved," were far from silent, 379 U.S. at 543, 546.3 As an "additional

Page 135

reason" why the conviction could not be sustained, the Court, citing Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, and Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229, held that, were the statute to be defined and applied as the Louisiana Supreme Court had done, it would be unconstitutional because the vagueness and breadth of the definition "would allow persons to be punished merely for peacefully expressing unpopular views." 379 U.S. at 551. See Edwards v. South Carolina, supra, at 237.

Since the present case was decided under precisely the statute involved in Cox, but before our decision in that case was announced, it might well be supposed that, without further ado, we would vacate and remand in light of Cox. But because the incident leading to the present convictions occurred in a public library, and might be thought to raise materially different questions, we have heard argument and have considered the case in extenso.

The locus of the events was the Audubon Regional Library in the town of Clinton, Louisiana, Parish of East Feliciana. The front room of the building was used as a public library facility, where patrons might obtain library services. It was a small room, containing two tables and one chair (apart from the branch assistant's desk and chairs), a stove, a card catalogue, and open book shelves. The room was referred to by the regional librarian, Mrs. Perkins, as "the adult reading room, the adult service room." The library permitted "registered borrowers" to "browse" among the books in the [86 S.Ct. 721] room or to borrow books. A "registered borrower" was one who could produce an identification card showing that he was registered by the Audubon Regional Library. Other space in the building included the headquarters of the regional library.

The Audubon Regional Library is operated jointly by the Parishes of East Feliciana, West Feliciana, and St. Helena. It has three branches and two bookmobiles.

Page 136

The bookmobiles served 33 schools, both white and Negro, as well as "individuals." One of the bookmobiles was red, the other blue. The red bookmobile served only white persons. The blue bookmobile served only Negroes. It is a permissible inference that no Negroes used the branch libraries.4

The registration cards issued to Negroes were stamped with the word "Negro." A Negro in possession of such a card was entitled to borrow books, but only from the blue bookmobile. A white person could not receive service from the blue bookmobile. He would have to wait until the red bookmobile came around, or would have to go to a branch library.

This tidy plan was challenged on Saturday, March 7, 1964, at about 11:30 a.m. Five young Negro males, all residents of East or West Feliciana Parishes, went into the adult reading or service room of the Audubon Regional Library at Clinton. The branch assistant, Mrs. Katie Reeves, was alone in the room. She met the men "between the tables" and asked if she "could help." Petitioner Brown requested a book, "The Story of the Negro" by Arna Bontemps. Mrs. Reeves checked the card catalogue, ascertained that the Branch did not have the book, so advised Mr. Brown, and told him that she would request the book from the State Library, that he would be notified upon its receipt, and that "he could either pick it up or it would be mailed to him." She told him that "his point of service was a bookmobile, or it could be mailed to him." Mrs....

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