384 U.S. 195 (1966), 619, Ashton v. Kentucky

Docket Nº:No. 619
Citation:384 U.S. 195, 86 S.Ct. 1407, 16 L.Ed.2d 469
Party Name:Ashton v. Kentucky
Case Date:May 16, 1966
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 195

384 U.S. 195 (1966)

86 S.Ct. 1407, 16 L.Ed.2d 469




No. 619

United States Supreme Court

May 16, 1966

        Argued April 28, 1966



        Petitioner was indicted and convicted for violating the Kentucky common law crime of criminal libel. The indictment charged "the offense of criminal libel" committed "by publishing a false and malicious publication which tends to degrade or injure" three named persons. The trial court charged that

criminal libel is defined as any writing calculated to create disturbances of the peace, corrupt the public morals, or lead to any act which, when done, is indictable.

        The court also charged that malice and falsity were essential elements of the offense. The Kentucky Court of Appeals, in affirming the conviction, ruled that breach of the peace is not a constitutional basis for imposing criminal liability, and held that common law criminal libel is "the publication of a defamatory statement about another which is false, with malice."


        1. Where an accused is convicted under a broad construction of a law which would make it unconstitutional, the conviction cannot be sustained on appeal by a limiting construction which eliminates the unconstitutional features of the law. Shuttlesworth v. Birmingham, 382 U.S. 87. P. 198.

        2. Because the offense was defined at trial as the publication of a writing calculated to disturb the peace, petitioner was judged by an unconstitutionally vague standard which required calculations as the the reaction of the audience to which the publication was addressed.

        3. Although vague laws in any setting are impermissible, laws which touch on First Amendment rights must be carefully and narrowly drawn. Pp. 200-201.

        406 S.W.2d 562 reversed.

Page 196

        DOUGLAS, J., lead opinion

        MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

        Petitioner was sentenced to six months in prison and fined $3,000 for printing a pamphlet found to be prohibited by the common law of criminal libel in Kentucky. The Kentucky Court of Appeals, with three judges dissenting, affirmed petitioner's conviction. 405 S.W.2d 562. We granted certiorari, 382 U.S. 971, and reverse.

        Petitioner went to Hazard, Kentucky, in 1963, where a bitter labor dispute raged, to appeal for food, clothing and aid for unemployed miners. The challenged pamphlet, which had a limited circulation, stated concerning Sam L. Luttrell, Chief of Police of Hazard:

Six weeks ago, I witnessed a plot to kill the one pro-strike city policeman on the Hazard Force. Three of the other cops were after him while he was on night duty. It took 5 pickets guarding him all night long to keep him from getting killed, but they could not prevent him from being fired, which he was three weeks ago. Another note on the City Police: the Chief of the force, Bud Luttrell, has a job on the side of guarding an operator's home for $100 a week. Its against the law for a peace officer to take private jobs.

        It said concerning Charles E. Combs, the Sheriff:

The High Sheriff has hired 72 deputies at one time, more than ever before in history; most of them hired because they wanted to carry guns. He, Sheriff Combs, is also a mine operator -- in a recent Court decision, he was fined $5,000 for intentionally blinding a boy with tear-gas and beating...

To continue reading