Speiser v. Randall Prince v. City and County of San Francisco, California

Decision Date30 June 1958
Docket NumberNos. 382,484,483,385,s. 382
Citation357 U.S. 513,2 L.Ed.2d 1460,78 S.Ct. 1335
PartiesLawrence SPEISER, Appellant, v. Justin A. RANDALL, as Assessor of Contra Costa County, State of California. Daniel PRINCE, Appellant, v. CITY AND COUNTY OF SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA, a Municipal Corporation
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Lawrence Speiser, San Francisco, Cal., for appellants.

Mr. George W. McClure, Pittsburgh, Pa., for appellee Randall.

Mr. Robert M. Desky, San Francisco, Cal., for appellee City and County of San Francisco.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The appellants are honorably discharged veterans of World War II who claimed the veterans' property-tax exemption provided by Art. XIII, § 1 1/4, of the California Constitution. Under California law applicants for such exemption must annually complete a standard form of application and file it with the local assessor. The form was revised in 1954 to add an oath by the applicant: 'I do not advocate the overthrow of the Government of the United States or of the State of California by force or violence or other unlawful means, nor advocate the support of a foreign Government against the United States in event of hostilities.' Each refused to subscribe the oath and struck it from the form which he executed and filed for the tax year 1954 1955. Each contended that the exaction of the oath as a condition of obtaining a tax exemption was forbidden by the Federal Constitution. The respective assessors denied the exemption solely for the refusal to execute the oath. The Supreme Court of California sustained the assessors' actions against the appellants' claims of constitutional invalidity.1 We noted probable jurisdiction of the appeals. 355 U.S. 880, 78 S.Ct. 148, 2 L.Ed.2d 111.

Article XX, § 19, of the California Constitution, adopted at the general election of November 4, 1952, provides as follows:

'Notwithstanding any other provision of this Constitution, no person or organization which advocates the overthrow of the Government of the United States or the State by force or violence or other unlawful means or who advocates the support of a foreign government against the United States in the event of hostilities shall:

'(b) Receive any exemption from any tax imposed by this State or any county, city or county, city, district, political subdivision, authority, board, bureau, commission or other public agency of this State.

'The Legislature shall enact such laws as may be necessary to enforce the provisions of this section.'

To effectuate this constitutional amendment the California Legislature enacted § 32 of the Revenue and Taxation Code, which requires the claimant, as a prerequisite to qualification for any property-tax exemption, to sign a statement on his tax return declaring that he does not engage in the activities described in the constitutional amendment.2 The California Supreme Court held that this declaration, like other statements required of those filing tax returns, was designed to relieve the tax assessor of 'the burden * * * of ascertaining the facts with reference to tax exemption claimants.' 48 Cal.2d 419, 432, 311 P.2d 508, 515. The declaration, while intended to provide a means of determining whether a claimant qualifies for the exemption under the constitutional amendment, is not conclusive evidence of eligibility. The assessor has the duty of investigating the facts underlying all tax liabilities and is empowered by § 454 of the Code to subpoena taxpayers for the purpose of questioning them about statements they have furnished. If the assessor believes that the claimant is not qualified in any respect, he may deny the exemption and require the claimant, on judicial review, to prove the incorrectness of the determination. In other words, the factual determination whether the taxpayer is eligible for the exemption under the constitutional amendment is made in precisely the same manner as the determination of any other fact bearing on tax liability.

The appellants attack these provisions, inter alia, as denying them freedom of speech without the procedural safeguards required by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.3


It cannot be gainsaid that a discriminatory denial of a tax exemption for engaging in speech is a limitation on free speech. The Supreme Court of California recognized that these provisions were limitations on speech but concluded that 'by no standard can the infringement upon freedom of speech imposed by section 19 of article XX be deemed a substantial one.' 48 Cal.2d 419, 440, 311 P.2d 508, 521. It is settled that speech can be effectively limited by the exercise of the taxing power. Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U.S. 233, 56 S.Ct. 444, 80 L.Ed. 660. To deny an exemption to claimants who engage in certain forms of speech is in effect to penalize them for such speech. Its deterrent effect is the same as if the State were to fine them for this speech. The appellees are plainly mistaken in their argument that, because a tax exemption is a 'privilege' or 'bounty,' its denial may not infringe speech. This contention did not prevail before the California courts, which recognized that conditions imposed upon the granting of privileges or gratuities must be 'reasonable.' It has been said that Congress may not by withdrawal of mailing privileges place limitations upon the freedom of speech which if directly attempted would be unconstitutional. See Hannegan v. Esquire, Inc., 327 U.S. 146, 156, 66 S.Ct. 456, 461, 90 L.Ed. 586; cf. United States ex rel. Milwaukee Social Democratic Publishing Co. v. Burleson, 255 U.S. 407, 430—431, 41 S.Ct. 352, 360—361, 65 L.Ed. 704 (Brandeis, J., dissenting). This Court has similarly rejected the contention that speech was not abridged when the sole restraint on its exercise was withdrawal of the opportunity to invoke the facilities of the National Labor Relations Board, American Communications Ass'n, C.J.O. v. Douds, 339 U.S. 382, 402, 70 S.Ct. 674, 685, 94 L.Ed. 925, or the opportunity for public employment, Wieman v. Updegraff, 344 U.S. 183, 73 S.Ct. 215, 97 L.Ed. 216. So here, the denial of a tax exemption for engaging in certain speech necessarily will have the effect of coercing the claimants to refrain from the proscribed speech. The denial is 'frankly aimed at the suppression of dangerous ideas.' American Communications Ass'n, C.I.O. v. Douds, supra, 339 U.S. at page 402, 70 S.Ct. at page 686.

The Supreme Court of California construed the constitutional amendment as denying the tax exemptions only to claimants who engage in speech which may be criminally punished consistently with the free-speech guarantees of the Federal Constitution. The court defined advocacy of 'the overthrow of the Government * * * by force or violence or other unlawful means' and advocacy of 'support of a foreign government against the United States in event of hostilities' as reaching only conduct which may constitutionally be punished under either the California Criminal Syndicalism Act, Cal.Stat.1919, c. 188, see Whitney v. People of State of California, 274 U.S. 357, 47 S.Ct. 641, 71 L.Ed. 1095, or the Federal Smith Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2385, 18 U.S.C.A. § 2385. 48 Cal.2d at page 428, 311 P.2d at page 513. It also said that it would apply the standards set down by this Court in Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494, 71 S.Ct. 857, 95 L.Ed. 1137, in ascertaining the circumstances which would justify punishing speech as a crime.4 Of course the constitutional and statutory provisions here involved must be read in light of the restrictive construction that the California court, in the exercise of its function of interpreting state law, has placed upon them. For the purposes of this case we assume without deciding that California may deny tax exemptions to persons who engage in the proscribed speech for which they might be fined or imprisoned.5

But the question remains whether California has chosen a fair method for determining when a claimant is a member of that class to which the California court has said the constitutional and statutory provisions extend. When we deal with the complex of strands in the web of freedoms which make up free speech, the operation and effect of the method by which speech is sought to be restrained must be subjected to close analysis and critical judgment in the light of the particular circumstances to which it is applied. Kingsley Books, Inc., v. Brown, 354 U.S. 436, 441—442, 77 S.Ct. 1325, 1327—1328, 1 L.Ed.2d 1469; Near v. State of Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697, 51 S.Ct. 625, 75 L.Ed. 1357; cf. Cantwell v. State of Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 305, 60 S.Ct. 900, 904, 84 L.Ed. 1213; Joseph Burstyn, Inc., v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495, 72 S.Ct. 777, 96 L.Ed. 1098; Winters v. People of State of New York, 333 U.S. 507, 68 S.Ct. 665, 92 L.Ed. 840; Niemotko v. State of Maryland, 340 U.S. 268, 71 S.Ct. 325, 95 L.Ed. 267; Staub v. City of Baxley, 355 U.S. 313, 78 S.Ct. 277, 2 L.Ed.2d 302.

To experienced lawyers it is commonplace that the outcome of a lawsuit—and hence the vindication of legal rights—depends more often on how the factfinder appraises the facts than on a disputed construction of a statute or interpretation of a line of precedents. Thus the procedures by which the facts of the case are determined assume an importance fully as great as the validity of the substantive rule of law to be applied. And the more important the rights at stake the more important must be the procedural safeguards surrounding those rights. Cf. Powell v. State of Alabama, 287 U.S. 45, 71, 53 S.Ct. 55, 65, 77 L.Ed. 158. When the State undertakes to restrain unlawful advocacy it must provide procedures which are adequate to safeguard against infringement of constitutionally protected rights—rights which we value most highly and which are essential to the workings of a free society. Moreover, since only considerations of the greatest urgency can...

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