Saia v. People of State of New York

Citation334 U.S. 558,92 L.Ed. 1574,68 S.Ct. 1148
Decision Date07 June 1948
Docket NumberNo. 504,504
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Appeal from the Court of Appeals of the State of New York.

Mr. Hayden C. Covington, of Brooklyn, N.Y., for appellant.

Mr. Alan V. Parker, of Niagara Falls, N.Y., for appellee.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the question of the validity under the Fourteenth Amendment of a penal ordinance of the City of Lockport, New York, which forbids the use of sound amplification devices except with permission of the Chief of Police. 1 Appellant is a minister of the religious sect known as Jehovah's Witnesses. He obtained from the Chief of Police permission to use sound equipment, mounted atop his car, to amplify lectures on religious subjects. The lectures were given at a fixed place in a public park on designated Sundays. When this permit expired, he applied for another one but was refused on the ground that complaints had been made. Appellant nevertheless used his equipment as planned on four occasions, but without a permit. He was tried in Police Court for violations of the ordinance. It was undisputed that he used his equipment to amplify speeches in the park and that they were on religious subjects. Some witnesses testified that they were annoyed by the sound, though not by the content of the addresses; others were not disturbed by either. The court upheld the ordinance against the contention that i violated appellant's rights of freedom of speech, assembly, and worship under the Federal Constitution. Fines and jail sentences were imposed. His convictions were affirmed without opinion by the County Court for Niagara County and by the New York Court of Appeals, 297 N.Y. 659, 76 N.E.2d 323. The case is here on appeal.

We hold that § 3 of this ordinance is unconstitutional on its face, for it establishes a previous restraint on the right of free speech in violation of the First Amendment which is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment against State action. To use a loud-speaker or amplifier one has to get a permit from the Chief of Police. There are no standards prescribed for the exercise of his discretion. The statute is not narrowly drawn to regulate the hours or places of use of loud-speakers, or the volume of sound (the decibels) to which they must be adjusted. The ordinance therefore has all the vices of the ones which we struck down in Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 60 S.Ct. 900, 84 L.Ed. 1213, 128 A.L.R. 1352; Lovell v. Griffin, 303 U.S. 444, 58 S.Ct. 666, 82 L.Ed. 949; and Hague v. C.I.O., 307 U.S. 496, 59 S.Ct. 954, 83 L.Ed. 1423.

In the Cantwell case a license had to be obtained in order to distribute religious literature. What was religious was left to the discretion of a public official. We held that judicial review to rectify abuses in the licensing system did not save the ordinance from condemnation on the grounds of previous restraint. Lovell v. Griffin, supra, held void on its face an ordinance requiring a license for the distribution of literature. That ordinance, like the present one, was dressed in the garb of the control of a 'nuisance.' But the Court made short shrift of the argument, saying that approval of the licensing system would institute censorship 'in its baldest form.' In Hague v. C.I.O., supra, we struck down a city ordinance which required a license from a local official for a public assembly on the streets or highways or in the public parks or public buildings. The official was empowered to refuse the permit if in his opinion the refusal would prevent 'riots, disturbances or disorderly assemblage.' We held that the ordinance was void on its face because it could be made 'the instrument of arbitrary suppression of free expression of views on national affairs.' 307 U.S. page 516, 59 S.Ct. page 964, 83 L.Ed. 1423.

The present ordinance has the same defects. The right to be heard is placed in the uncontrolled discretion of the Chief of Police. He stands athwart the channels of communication as an obstruction which can be removed only after criminal trial and conviction and lengthy appeal. A more effective previous restraint is difficult to imagine. Unless we are to retreat from the firm positions we have taken in the past, we must give freedom of speech in this case the same preferred treatment that we gave freedom of religion in the Cantwell case, freedom of the press in the Griffin case, and freedom of speech and assembly in the Hague case.2

Loud-speakers are today indispensable instruments of effective public speech. The sound truck has become an accepted method of political campaigning. It is the way people are reached. Must a candidate for governor or the Congress depend on the whim or caprice of the Chief of Police in order to use his sound truck for campaigning? Must he prove to the satisfaction of that official that his noise will not be annoying to people?

The present ordinance would be a dangerous weapon if it were allowed to get a hold on our public life. Noise can be regulated by regulating decibels. The hours and place of public discussion can be controlled. But to allow the police to bar the use of loud-speakers because their use can be abused is like barring radio receivers because they too make a noise. The police need not be given the power to deny a man the use of his radio in order to protect a neighbor against sleepless nights The same is true here.

Any abuses which loud-speakers create can be controlled by narrowly drawn statutes. When a city allows an official to ban them in his uncontrolled discretion, it sanctions a device for suppression of free communication of ideas. In this case a permit is denied because some persons were said to have found the sound annoying. In the next one a permit may be denied because some people find the ideas annoying. Annoyance at ideas can be cloaked in annoyance at sound. The power of censorship inherent in this type of ordinance reveals its vice.

Courts must balance the various community interests in passing on the constitutionality of local regulations of the character involved here. But in that process they should be mindful to keep the freedoms of the First Amendment in a preferred position. See Marsh v. Alabama, 326 U.S. 501, 509, 66 S.Ct. 276, 280, 90 L.Ed. 265.


Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER, with whom Mr. Justice REED and Mr. Justice BURTON concur, dissenting.

The appellant's loud speakers blared forth in a small park in a small city. 1 The park was about 1,600 feet long and from 250 to 400 feet wide. It was used primarily for recreation, containing benches, picnic and athletic facilities, and a children's wading pool and playground. Estimates of the range of the sound equipment varied from about 200 to 600 feet. The attention of a large fraction of the area of the park was thus commanded.

The native power of human speech can interfere little with the self-protection of those who do not wish to listen. They may easily move beyond earshot, just as those who do not choose to read need not have their attention bludgeoned by undesired reading matter. And so utterances by speech or pen can neither be forbidden nor licensed, save in the familiar classes of exceptional situations. Lovell v. Griffin, 303 U.S. 444, 58 S.Ct. 666, 82 L.Ed. 949; Hague v. CIO, 307 U.S. 496, 59 S.Ct. 954, 83 L.Ed. 1423; Schneider v. Irvington, 308 U.S. 147, 60 S.Ct. 146, 84 L.Ed. 155; Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 62 S.Ct. 766, 86 L.Ed. 1031. But modern devices for amplifying the range and volume of the voice, or its recording, afford easy, too easy, opportunities for aural aggression. If uncontrolled, the result is intrusion into cherished privacy. The refreshment of mere silence, or meditai on, or quiet conversation, may be disturbed or precluded by noise beyond one's personal control.

Municipalities have conscientiously sought to deal with the new problems to which sound equipment has given rise and have devised various methods of control to make city life endurable. See McIntyre and Rhyne, Radio and Municipal Regulations (National Institute of Municipal Law Officers, Report No. 62, 1940) pp. 28 et seq. Surely there is not a constitutional right to force unwilling people to listen. Cf. Otto, Speech and Freedom of Speech, in Freedom and Experience (Edited by Hook and Konvitz, 1947) 78, 83 et seq. And so I cannot agree that we must deny the right of a State to control these broadcasting devices so as to safeguard the rights of others not to be assailed by intrusive noise but to be free to put their freedom of mind and attention to uses of their own choice.

Coming to the facts of the immediate situation, I cannot say that it was beyond constitutional limits to refuse a license to the appellant for the time and place requested. The State was entitled to authorize the local authorities of Lockport to determine that the well-being of those of its inhabitants who sought quiet and other pleasures that a park affords, outweighed the appellant's right to force his message upon them. Nor did it exceed the bounds of reason for the chief of police to base his decision refusing a license upon the fact that the manner in which the license had been used in the past was distructive of the enjoyment of the park by those for whom it was maintained. That people complained about an annoyance would seem to be a pretty solid basis in experience for not sanctioning its continuance.

Very different considerations come into play when the free exercise of religion is subjected to a licensing system whereby a minor official determines whether a cause is religious. This was the problem presented by Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 60 S.Ct. 900, 84 L.Ed. 1213, 128 A.L.R. 1352, and of course we held that 'Such a censorship of religion as the means of determining its right to survive is a denial of liberty protected by the First Amendment and...

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