453 U.S. 114 (1981), 80-608, United States Postal Service v. Council of

Docket Nº:No. 80-608
Citation:453 U.S. 114, 101 S.Ct. 2676, 69 L.Ed.2d 517
Party Name:United States Postal Service v. Council of
Case Date:June 25, 1981
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 114

453 U.S. 114 (1981)

101 S.Ct. 2676, 69 L.Ed.2d 517

United States Postal Service


Council of

No. 80-608

United States Supreme Court

June 25, 1981

Greenburgh Civic Associations

Argued April 21, 1981




Title 18 U.S.C. § 1725 prohibits the deposit of unstamped "mailable matter" in a letterbox approved by the United States Postal Service, and violations are subject to a fine. The local Postmaster notified appellee civic association that its practice of delivering messages to residents by placing unstamped notices in the letterboxes of private homes violated § 1725, and advised it that, if it and other members of appellee council of civic associations continued such practice, it could result in a fine. Appellees then brought suit in Federal District Court against the Postal Service for declaratory and injunctive relief, contending that the enforcement of § 1725 would inhibit their communications with local residents and would thereby deny them the freedom of speech and press secured by the First Amendment. The District Court ultimately declared § 1725 unconstitutional as applied to appellees and the council's member associations and enjoined the Postal Service from enforcing it as to them.

Held: Section 1725 does not unconstitutionally abridge appellees' First Amendment rights, inasmuch as neither the enactment nor the enforcement of § 1725 is geared in any way to the content of the message sought to be placed in the letterbox. Pp. 120-134.

(a) When a letterbox is designated an "authorized depository" of the mail by the Postal Service, it becomes an essential part of the nationwide system for the delivery and receipt of mail. In effect, the postal customer, although he pays for the physical components of the "authorized depository," agrees to abide by the Postal Service's regulations in exchange for the Postal Service agreeing to deliver and pick up his mail. A letterbox, once designated an "authorized depository," does not at the same time transform itself into a "public forum" of some limited nature to which the First Amendment guarantees access to all comers. Just because it may be somewhat more efficient for appellees to place their messages in letterboxes does not mean that there is a First Amendment right to do so. The First Amendment does not guarantee access to property simply because it is owned or controlled by the Government. Pp. 126-131.

Page 115

(b) Congress, in exercising its constitutional authority to develop and operate a national postal system, may properly legislate with the generality of cases in mind, and should not be put to the test of defending in one township after another the constitutionality of a statute under the traditional "time, place, and manner" analysis. If Congress and the Postal Service are to operate as efficiently as possible an extensive system for the delivery of mail, they must adopt regulations of a general character having uniform applicability throughout the Nation. In this case, Congress was legislating to promote what it considered to be the efficiency of the Postal Service, and was not laying down a generalized prohibition against the distribution of leaflets or the discussion of issues in traditional public forums. Pp. 133-133.

(c) While Congress may not, by its own ipse dixit, destroy the "public forum" status of streets and parks, a letterbox may not properly be analogized to streets and parks. Pp. 133-134.

490 F.Supp. 157, reversed.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, BLACKMUN, and POWELL, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., post, p. 134, and WHITE, J., post, p. 141, filed opinions concurring in the judgment. MARSHALL, J., post, p. 142, and STEVENS, J., post, p. 152, filed dissenting opinions.

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

We noted probable jurisdiction to decide whether the United States District Court for the Southern District of

Page 116

New York correctly determined that 18 U.S.C. § 1725, which prohibits the deposit of unstamped "mailable matter" in a letterbox approved by the United States Postal Service, unconstitutionally abridges the First Amendment rights of certain civic associations in Westchester County, N.Y. 449 U.S. 1076 (1981). Jurisdiction of this Court rests on 28 U.S.C.§ 1252.


Appellee Council of Greenburgh Civic Associations (Council) is an umbrella organization for a number of civic groups in Westchester County, N.Y. Appellee Saw Mill Valley Civic Association is one of the Council's member groups. In June, 1976, the Postmaster in White Plains, N.Y. notified the Chairman of the Saw Mill Valley Civic Association that the association's practice of delivering messages to local residents by placing unstamped notices and pamphlets in the letterboxes of private homes was in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1725, which provides:

Whoever knowingly and willfully deposits any mailable matter such as statements of accounts, circulars, sale bills, or other like matter, on which no postage has been paid, in any letter box established, approved, or accepted by the Postal Service for the receipt or delivery of mail matter on any mail route with intent to avoid payment of lawful postage thereon, shall for each such offense be fined not more than $300.

Saw Mill Valley Civic Association and other Council members were advised that, if they continued their practice of placing unstamped notices in the letterboxes of private homes, it could result in a fine not to exceed $300.

In February, 1977, appellees filed this suit in the District Court for declaratory and injunctive relief from the Postal Service's threatened enforcement of § 1725. Appellees contended that the enforcement of § 1725 would inhibit their

Page 117

communication with residents of the town of Greenburgh and would thereby deny them the freedom of speech and freedom of the press secured by the First Amendment.

The District Court initially dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted. 448 F.Supp. 159 (SDNY 1978). On appeal, however, the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed and remanded the case to the District Court to give the parties

an opportunity to submit proof as to the extent of the handicap to communication caused by enforcement of the statute in the area involved, on the one hand, and the need for the restriction for protection of the mails, on the other.

586 F.2d 935, 936 (1978). In light of this language, it was not unreasonable for the District Court to conclude that it had been instructed to "try" the statute, much as more traditional issues of fact are tried by a court, and that is what the District Court proceeded to do.

In the proceedings on remand, the Postal Service offered three general justifications for § 1725: (1) that § 1725 protects mail revenues; (2) that it facilitates the efficient and secure delivery of the mails; and (3) that it promotes the privacy of mail patrons. More specifically, the Postal Service argued that elimination of § 1725 could cause the overcrowding of mailboxes due to the deposit of civic association notices. Such overcrowding would, in turn, constitute an impediment to the delivery of the mails. Testimony was offered that § 1725 aided the investigation of mail theft by restricting access to letterboxes, thereby enabling postal investigators to assume that anyone other than a postal carrier or a householder who opens a mailbox may be engaged in the violation of the law. On this point, a postal inspector testified that 10 of the arrests made under the external mail theft statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1708, resulted from surveillance-type operations which benefit from enforcement of § 1725. Testimony was also introduced that § 1725 has been

Page 118

particularly helpful in the investigation of thefts of government benefit checks from letterboxes.1

The Postal Service introduced testimony that it would incur additional expense if § 1725 were either eliminated or held to be inapplicable to civic association materials. If delivery in mailboxes were expanded to permit civic association circulars -- but not other types of nonmailable matter such as commercial materials -- mail carriers would be obliged to remove and examine individual unstamped items found in letterboxes to determine if their deposit there was lawful. Carriers would also be confronted with a larger amount of unstamped mailable matter [101 S.Ct. 2680] which they would be obliged to separate from outgoing mail. The extra time resulting from these additional activities, when computed on a nationwide basis, would add substantially to the daily cost of mail delivery.

The final justification offered by the Postal Service for § 1725 was that the statute provided significant protection for the privacy interests of postal customers. Section 1725 provides postal customers the means to send and receive mails without fear of their correspondence becoming known to members of the community.

Page 119

The Postal Service also argued at trial that the enforcement of § 1725 left appellees with ample alternative means of delivering their message. The appellees can deliver their messages either by paying postage, by hanging their notices on doorknobs, by placing their notices under doors or under a doormat, by using newspaper or nonpostal boxes affixed to houses or mailbox posts, by telephoning their constituents, by engaging in person-to-person delivery in public areas, by tacking or taping their notices on a door post or letterbox post, or by placing advertisements in local newspapers. A survey was introduced comparing the...

To continue reading