Beauharnais v. People State of Illinois v. 28 8212 29, 1951

Decision Date28 April 1952
Docket NumberNo. 118,118
PartiesBEAUHARNAIS v. PEOPLE of the STATE OF ILLINOIS. Argued Nov. 28—29, 1951
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Alfred A. Albert, New York City, for petitioner.

Mr. William C. Wines, Chicago, Ill., for respondent.

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The petitioner was convicted upon information in the Municipal Court of Chicago of violating § 224a of Division 1 of the Illinois Criminal Code, Ill.Rev.Stat.1949, c. 38, § 471. He was fined $200. The section provides:

'It shall be unlawful for any person, firm or corporation to manufacture, sell, or offer for sale, advertise or publish, present or exhibit in any public place in this state any lithograph, moving picture, play, drama or sketch, which publication or exhibition portrays depravity, criminality, unchastity, or lack of virtue of a class of citizens, of any race, color, creed or religion which said publication or exhibition exposes the citizens of any race, color, creed or religion to contempt, derision, or obloquy or which is productive of breach of the peace or riots. * * *'

Beauharnais challenged the statute as violating the liberty of speech and of the press guaranteed as against the States by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and as too vague, under the restrictions implicit in the same Clause, to support conviction for crime. The Illinois courts rejected these contentions and sustained defendant's conviction. 408 Ill. 512, 97 N.E.2d 343. We granted certiorari in view of the serious questions raised concerning the limitations imposed by the Fourteenth Amendment on the power of a State to punish utterances promoting friction among racial and religious groups. 342 U.S. 809, 72 S.Ct. 39.

The information, cast generally in the terms of the statute, charged that Beauharnais 'did unlawfully * * * exhibit in public places lithographs, which publications portray depravity, criminality, unchastity or lack of virtue of citizens of Negrorace and color and which exproses (sic) citizens of Illinois of the Negro race and color to contempt, derision, or obloquy * * *.' The lithograph complained of was a leaflet setting forth a petition calling on the Mayor and City Council of Chicago 'to halt the further encroachment, harassment and invasion of white people, their property, neighborhoods and persons, by the Negro * * *.' Below was a call for 'One million self respecting white people in Chicago to unite * * *.' with the statement added that 'If persuasion and the need to prevent the white race from becoming mongrelized by the negro will not unite us, then the aggressions * * * rapes, robberies, knives, guns and marijuana of the negro, surely will.' This, with more language, similar if not so violent, concluded with an attached application for membership in the White Circle League of America, Inc.

The testimony at the trial was substantially undisputed. From it the jury could find that Beauharnais was president of the White Circle League; that, at a meeting on January 6, 1950, he passed out bundles of the lithographs in question, together with other literature, to volunteers for distribution on downtown Chicago street corners the following day; that he carefully organized that distribution, giving detailed instructions for it; and that the leaflets were in fact distributed on January 7 in accordance with his plan and instructions. The court, together with other charges on burden of proof and the like, told the jury 'if you find * * * that the defendant, Joseph Beauharnais, did * * * manufacture, sell, or offer for sale, advertise or publish, present or exhibit in any public place the lithograph * * * then you are to find the defendant guilty * * *.' He refused to charge the jury, as requested by the defendant, that in order to convict they must find 'that the article complained of was likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises for above public inconvenience, annoyance or unrest.' Upon this evidence and these instructions, the jury brought in the conviction here for review.

The statute before us is not a catchall enactment left at large by the State court which applied it. Cf. Thornhill v. State of Alabama, 310 U.S. 88, 60 S.Ct. 736, 84 L.Ed. 1093; Cantwell v. State of Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 307, 60 S.Ct. 900, 904, 84 L.Ed. 1213. It is a law specifically directed at a defined evil, its language drawing from history and practice in Illinois and in more than a score of other jurisdictions a meaning confirmed by the Supreme Court of that State in upholding this conviction. We do not, therefore, parse the statute as grammarians or treat it as an abstract exercise in lexicography. We read it in the animating context of well-defined usage, Nash v. United States, 229 U.S. 373, 33 S.Ct. 780, 57 L.Ed. 1232, and State court construction which determines its meaning for us. Cox v. State of New Hampshire, 312 U.S. 569, 61 S.Ct. 762, 85 L.Ed. 1049; Chaplinsky v. State of New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 62 S.Ct. 766, 86 L.Ed. 1031.

The Illinois Supreme Court tells us that § 224a 'is a form of criminal libel law'. 408 Ill. 512, 517, 97 N.E.2d 343, 346. The defendant, the trial court and the Supreme Court consistently treated it as such. The defendant offered evidence tending to prove the truth of parts of the utterance, and the courts below considered and disposed of this offer in terms of ordinary criminal libel precedents.1 Section 224a does not deal with the defense of truth, but by the Illinois Constitution, Art. II, § 4, S.H.A., 'in all trials for libel, both civil and criminal, the truth, when published with good motives and for justifiable ends, shall be a sufficient defense.' See also Ill.Rev.Stat., 1949, c. 38, § 404. Similarly, the action of the trial court in deciding as a matter of law the libelous character of the utterance, leaving to the jury only the question of publication, follows the settled rule in prosecutions for libel in Illinois and other States.2 Moreover, the Supreme Court's characterization of the words prohibited by the statute as those 'liable to cause violence and disorder' paraphrases the traditional justification for punishing libels criminally, namely their 'tendency to cause breach of the peace.'3

Libel of an individual was a common-law crime, and thus criminal in the colonies. Indeed, at common law, truth or good motives was no defense. In the first decades after the adoption of the Constitution, this was changed by judicial decision, statute or constitution in most States, but nowhere was there any suggestion that the crime of libel be abolished.4 Today, every American jurisdiction—the forty-eight States, the District of Columbia, Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico—punish libels directed at individuals.5 'There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which has never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or 'fighting' words—those which by their veryutterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utter- ances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality. 'Resort to epithets or personal abuse is not in any proper sense communication of information or opinion safeguarded by the Constitution, and its punishment as a criminal act would raise no question under that instrument.' Cantwell v. State of Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 309, 310, 60 S.Ct. 900, 906, 84 L.Ed. 1213.' Such were the views of a unanimous Court in Chaplinsky v. State of New Hampshire, supra, 315 U.S. at pages 571—572, 62 S.Ct. at page 769.6

No one will gainsay that it is libelous falsely to charge another with being a rapist, robber, carrier of knives and guns, and user of marijuana. The precise question before us, then, is whether the protection of 'liberty' in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prevents a State from punishing such libels—as criminal libel has been defined, limited and constitutionally recognized time out of mind—directed at designated collectivities and flagrantly disseminated. There is even authority, however dubious, that such utterances were also crimes at common law.7 It is certainly clear that some American jurisdictions have sanctioned their punishment under ordinary criminal libel statutes.8 We cannot say, however, that the question is concluded by history and practice. But if an utterance directed at an individual may be the object of criminal sanctions, we cannot deny to a State power to punish the same utterance directed at a defined group, unless we can say that this a wilful and purposeless restriction unrelated to the peace and well-being of the State.

Illinois did not have to look beyond her own borders or await the tragic experience of the last three dec- ades9 to conclude that wilful purveyors of falsehood concerning racial and religious groups promote strife and tend powerfully to obstruct the manifold adjustments required for free, ordered life in a metropolitan, polyglot community. From the murder of the abolitionist Love-joy in 1837 to the Cicero riots of 1951, Illinois has been the scene of exacerbated tension between races, often flaring into violence and destruction. 10 In many of these outbreaks, utterances of the character here in question, so the Illinois legislature could conclude, played a significant part.11 The law was passed on June 29, 1917, at a time when the State was struggling to assimilate vast numbers of new inhabitants, as yet concentrated in discrete racial or national or religious groups foreign-born brought to it by the crest of...

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