Cox v. State of New Hampshire

Decision Date31 March 1941
Docket NumberNo. 502,502
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. Hayden Covington and Joseph F. Rutherford, both of Brooklyn, N.Y., for appellants.

Mr. Frank R. Kenison, of Conway, N.H., for appellee.

Mr. Chief Justice HUGHES delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellants are five 'Jehovah's Witnesses' who, with sixty-three others of the same persuasion, were convicted in the municipal court of Manchester, New Hampshire, for violation of a state statute prohibiting a 'parade or procession' upon a public street without a special license.

Upon appeal, there was a trial de novo of these appellants before a jury in the Superior Court, the other defendants having agreed to abide by the final decision in that proceeding. Appellants were found guilty and the judgment of conviction was affirmed by the Supreme Court of the State. State v. Cox, 91 N.H. -, 16 A.2d 508.

By motions and exceptions, appellants raised the questions that the statute was invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States in that it deprived appellants of their rights of freedom of worship, freedom of speech and press, and freedom of assembly, vested unreasonable and unlimited arbitrary and discriminatory powers in the licensing authority, and was vague and indefinite. These contentions were overruled and the case comes here on appeal.

The statutory prohibition is as follows (New Hampshire, P.L., Chap. 145, Sec. 2): 'No theatrical or dramatic representation shall be performed or exhibited, and no parade or procession upon any public street or way, and no open-air public meeting upon any ground abutting thereon, shall be permitted, unless a special license therefor shall first be obtained from the selectmen of the town, or from a licensing committee for cities hereinafter provided for'.

The provisions for licensing are set forth in the margin.1

The facts, which are conceded by the appellants to be established by the evidence, are these: The sixty-eight defendants and twenty other persons met at a hall in the City of Manchester on the evening of Saturday, July 8, 1939, 'for the purpose of engaging in an information march'. The company was divided into four or five groups, each with about fifteen to twenty persons. Each group then proceeded to a different part of the business district of the city and there 'would line up in single-file formation and then proceed to march along the sidewalk, 'single-file', that is, following one another'. Each of the defendants carried a small staff with a sign reading 'Religion is a Snare and a Racket' and on the reverse 'Serve God and Christ the King'. Some of the marchers carried placards bearing the statement 'Fascism or Freedom. Hear Judge Rutherford and Face the Facts'. The marchers also handed out printed leaflets announcing a meeting to be held at a later time in the hall from which they had started, where a talk on government would be given to the public free of charge. Defendants did not apply for a permit and none was issued.

There was a dispute in the evidence as to the distance between the marchers. Defendants said that they were from fifteen to twenty feet apart. The State insists that the evidence clearly showed that the 'marchers were as close together as it was possible for them to walk'. Appellants concede that this dispute is not material to the questions presented. The recital of facts which prefaced the opinion of the state court thus summarizes the effect of the march: 'Manchester had a population of over 75,000 in 1930, and there was testimony that on Saturday nights in an hour's time 26,000 persons passed one of the intersections where the defendants marched. The marchers interfered with the normal sidewalk travel, but no technical breach of the peace occurred. The march was a prearranged affair, and no permit for it was sought, although the defendants understood that under the statute one was required'.

Appellants urge that each of the defendants was a minister ordained to preach the gospel in accordance with his belief and that the participation of these ministers in the march was for the purpose of disseminating information in the public interest and was one of their ways of worship.

The sole charge against appellants was that they were 'taking part in a parade or procession' on public streets without a permit as the statute required. They were not prosecuted for distributing leaflets, or for conveying information by placards or otherwise, or for issuing invitations to a public meeting, or for holding a public meeting, or for maintaining or expressing religious beliefs. Their right to do any one of these things apart from engaging in a 'parade or procession' upon a public street is not here involved and the question of the validity of a statute addressed to any other sort of conduct than that complained of is not before us.

There appears to be no ground for challenging the ruling of the state court that appellants were in fact engaged in a parade or procession upon the public streets. As the state court observed: 'It was a march in formation, and its advertising and informatory purpose did not make it otherwise. * * * It is immaterial that its tactics were few and simple. It is enough that it proceeded in ordered and close file as a collective body of persons on the city streets'.

Civil liberties, as guaranteed by the Constitution, imply the existence of an organized society maintaining public order without which liberty itself would be lost in the excesses of unrestrained abuses. The authority of a municipality to impose regulations in order to assure the safety and convenience of the people in the use of public highways has never been regarded as inconsistent with civil liberties but rather as one of the means of safeguarding the good order upon which they ultimately depend. The control of travel on the streets of cities is the most familiar illustration of this recognition of social need. Where a restriction of the use of highways in that relation is designed to promote the public convenience in the interest of all, it cannot be disregarded by the attempted exercise of some civil right which in other circumstances would be entitled to protection. One would not be justified in ignoring the familiar red traffic light because he thought it his religious duty to disobey the municipal command or sought by that means to direct public attention to an announcement of his opinions. As regulation of the use of the streets for parades and processions is a traditional exercise of control by local government, the question in a particular case is whether that control is exerted so as not to deny or unwarrantedly abridge the right of assembly and the opportunities for the communication of thought and the discussion of public questions immemorially associated with resort to public places. Lovell v. Griffin, 303 U.S. 444, 451, 58 S.Ct. 666, 668, 82 L.Ed. 949; Hague v. Committee for Industrial Organiza- tion, 307 U.S. 496, 515, 516, 59 S.Ct. 954, 963, 964, 83 L.Ed. 1423; Schneider v. State of New Jersey, 308 U.S. 147, 160, 60 S.Ct. 146, 150, 84 L.Ed. 155; Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 306, 307, 60 S.Ct. 900, 904, 84 L.Ed. 1213, 128 A.L.R. 1352.

In the instant case, we...

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