384 U.S. 214 (1966), 597, Mills v. Alabama

Docket Nº:No. 597
Citation:384 U.S. 214, 86 S.Ct. 1434, 16 L.Ed.2d 484
Party Name:Mills v. Alabama
Case Date:May 23, 1966
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 214

384 U.S. 214 (1966)

86 S.Ct. 1434, 16 L.Ed.2d 484




No. 597

United States Supreme Court

May 23, 1966

Argued April 19, 1966



Appellant, a Birmingham, Alabama, newspaper editor, was arrested on a complaint of violating § 285 of the Alabama Corrupt Practices Act by writing and publishing on election day an editorial urging adoption in that election of the mayor-council form of government. Section 285 proscribes electioneering or soliciting votes on election day for or against any proposition or candidate involved in the election. The trial court sustained demurrers on the grounds that the statute violated state and federal free speech guarantees. The Alabama Supreme Court, holding the statutory election-day restriction reasonable or "within the field of reasonableness," reversed and remanded the case for trial.


1. This Court has jurisdiction over the appeal. Notwithstanding the remand of the case, the Alabama Supreme Court's judgment was "final" within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 1257, because appellant's conviction in any subsequent trial is inevitable in view of that court's ruling that the Alabama statute is constitutional and appellant's concession that he wrote and published the editorial. Pp. 217-218.

2. A state statute making it a crime for a newspaper editor to publish an editorial on election day urging people to vote in a particular way flagrantly violates the First Amendment, applied to the States by the Fourteenth, a major purpose of which was to protect free discussion of governmental affairs. Pp. 218-220.

278 Ala. 188, 176 So.2d 884, reversed and remanded.

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BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question squarely presented here is whether a State, consistently with the United States Constitution, can make it a crime for the editor of a daily newspaper to write and publish an editorial on election day urging people to vote a certain way on issues submitted to them.

On November 6, 162, Birmingham, Alabama, held an election for the people to decide whether they preferred to keep their existing city commission form of government or replace it with a mayor-council government. On election day, the Birmingham Post-Herald, a daily newspaper, carried an editorial written by its editor, appellant, James E. Mills, which strongly urged the people to adopt the mayor-council form of government.1 Mills was later arrested on a complaint charging that, by

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publishing the editorial on election day, he had violated § 285 of the Alabama Corrupt Practices Act, Ala.Code, 1940, Tit. 17, § 268-286, which makes it a crime

to do any electioneering or to solicit any votes . . . in support of or in opposition to any proposition that is being voted on on the day on which the election affecting such candidates or propositions is being held.2

The trial court sustained demurrers to the complaint on [86 S.Ct. 1436] the grounds that the state statute abridged freedom of speech and press in violation of the Alabama Constitution and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. On appeal by the State, the Alabama Supreme Court held that publication of the editorial on election day undoubtedly violated the state law, and then went on to reverse the trial court by holding that the state statute, as applied, did not unconstitutionally abridge freedom of speech or press. Recognizing that the state law did limit and restrict both speech and press, the State Supreme Court nevertheless sustained it as a valid exercise of the State's police power chiefly because, as that court said, the press "restriction, everything considered, is within the field of reasonableness," and "not an unreasonable limitation upon free speech, which includes

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free press." 278 Ala. 188, 195, 196, 176 So.2d 884, 890. The case is here on appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1257 (1964 ed.).


The State has moved to dismiss this appeal on the ground that the Alabama Supreme Court's judgment is not a "final judgment," and therefore not appealable under § 1257.3 The State argues that, since the Alabama Supreme Court remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings not inconsistent with its opinion (which would include a trial), the Supreme Court's judgment cannot be considered "final." This argument has a surface plausibility, since it is true the judgment of the State Supreme Court did not literally end the case. It did, however, render a judgment binding upon the trial court that it must convict Mills under this state statute if he wrote and published the editorial. Mills concedes that he did, and he therefore has no defense in the Alabama trial court. Thus, if the case goes back to the trial court, the trial, so far as this record shows, would be no more than a few formal gestures leading inexorably towards a conviction, and then another appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court for it formally to repeat its rejection of Mills' constitutional contentions, whereupon the case could then once more wind its weary way back to us as a judgment unquestionably final and appealable. Such a roundabout process would not only be an inexcusable delay of the benefits Congress intended to grant by providing for appeal to this Court, but it would also result in a completely unnecessary waste of time and energy in judicial systems already troubled by delays due

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to congested dockets.4 The language of § 1257 as we construed it in Pope v. Atlantic Coast Line R. Co., 345 U.S. 379, 381-383, does not require a result leading to such consequences. See also Construction Laborers v. Curry, 371 U.S. 542, 548-551; Richfield Oil Corp. v. State Board, 329 U.S. 69, 72-74. Following those cases, we hold that we have jurisdiction.

We come now to the merits. The First Amendment, which applies to the States through the Fourteenth, prohibits laws "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." The question here is whether it abridges freedom of the press for a State to punish a newspaper editor for doing no more than publishing an editorial on election day urging people to vote a particular way in the election. We should point out at once that this question [86 S.Ct. 1437] in no way involves the extent of a State's power to regulate conduct in and around the polls in order to maintain peace, order and decorum there. The sole reason for the charge that Mills violated the law is that he wrote and published an editorial on election day urging Birmingham voters to cast their votes in favor of changing their form of government.

Whatever differences may exist about interpretations of the First Amendment, there is practically universal agreement that a major purpose of that Amendment was to protect the free discussion of governmental affairs. This, of course, includes discussions of candidates, structures and forms of government, the manner in which government is operated or should be operated, and all such

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matters relating to political processes. The Constitution specifically selected the press, which includes not only newspapers, books, and magazines, but also humble leaflets and circulars, see Lovell v. Griffin, 303 U.S. 444, to play an important role in the discussion of public affairs. Thus, the press serves and was designed to serve as a powerful antidote to any abuses of power by governmental officials, and as a constitutionally chosen means for keeping officials elected by the people responsible to all the people whom they were selected to serve. Suppression of the right of the press to praise or criticize governmental agents and to clamor and contend for or against change, which is all that this editorial did, muzzles one of the very agencies the Framers of our Constitution thoughtfully and deliberately selected to improve our society and keep it free. The Alabama Corrupt Practices Act, by providing criminal penalties for publishing editorials such as the one here, silences the...

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