Brandenburg v United States

US Constitutional Law

Brandenburg v United States
Image: ‘Freedom of Speech’ by Norman Rockwell

Freedom of speech and the right to incite action form the bedrock of the US Constitution, however when threatened through state laws, the courts must preserve those liberties, even when used for immoral purposes. On this occasion, the propagation of racist and discriminatory rhetoric through a popular medium led to the conviction of a contributor, whereupon the defendant argued for his right to dissent.

In 1969, the now appellant was indicted and sentenced to a fine and imprisonment, after recorded television footage showed him partaking in a Klu Klux Klan rally designed to disseminate their plans for governmental challenge on grounds of perceived racial subjugation by Congress.

Under the terms of s.2923.13 of the Ohio Revised Code, and the now defunct Ohio Criminal Syndicalism Statute 1919, the appellant was charged with:

“Advocating the duty, necessity, propriety of crime, sabotage, violence, or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform”

And:

“Voluntarily assembly with any society, group, or assemblage of persons formed to teach or advocate the doctrines of criminal syndicalism.”

Whereupon the appellant argued that such charges were in violation of the first and fourteenth amendments to the Constitution, both of which read:

“(1) Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

(14)(1) All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Despite this inherent defence, the court unwaveringly held the conviction, after which the appellant sought the opinion of the intermediate appeal court of Ohio, who again dismissed his contention outright. With presentation before the US Supreme Court, the matter was naturally given greater consideration.

Having examined the footage and accompanying commentary, it was agreed that there was little to support the application of the 1919 statute when with consideration of the context in which the recording was made, there was insufficient evidence to suggest open advocation of violence, despite the presence of firearms and racially provocative speech amidst the poor quality of sound available.

It was this caveat which then drew early reference to cases such as De Jonge v. Oregon, in which the Court had held how:

“The right of peaceable assembly is a right cognate to those of free speech and free press and is equally fundamental”

That in turn led the Court to consider the relevance of the ‘clear and present danger’ test, as established in Schenck v. United States, where Justice Holmes explained that:

“The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree.”

And Abrams v. United States, where he again remarked:

It is only the present danger of immediate evil or an intent to bring it about that warrants Congress in 1832 setting a limit to the expression of opinion where private rights are not concerned. Congress certainly cannot forbid all effort to change the mind of the country.”

Both of which remained a judicial truism until Gitlow v. People of State of New York, where he concluded how:

“Every idea is an incitement. It offers itself for belief and if believed it is acted on unless some other belief outweighs it or some failure of energy stifles the movement at its birth. The only difference between the expression of an opinion and an incitement in the narrower sense is the speaker’s enthusiasm for the result. Eloquence may set fire to reason…If in the long run the beliefs expressed in proletarian dictatorship are destined to be accepted by the dominant forces of the community, the only meaning of free speech is that they should be given their chance and have their way.”

Thus showing renewed appreciation of the constitutional rights afforded all American citizens, even when the premise of such speech stems from divisive and unconstitutional rationales. It was for this reason that the Court uniformly held that the fundamental right to assert ones opinions, regardless of who may or may not be offended, must be safeguarded on the principle that anything less would be an invasion of liberty and a dismantling of the only platform upon which to express civil discontent.

Key Citations

“Action is often a method of expression and within the protection of the First Amendment.”

“The quality of advocacy turns on the depth of the conviction; and government has no power to invade that sanctuary of belief and conscience.”

US v Carolene Products Co

US Constitutional Law

US v Carolene Products Co
Image: ‘Oreo Cookies and Milk’ by Mick McGinty

Amendment rights and the need to protect against fraud, are central to a case involving a distributor of food products and the intervention by Congress in the interests of public safety when in 1938, a corporate entity was indicted under ss.61 and 62 of the Filled Milk Act 1923.

After having shipped a number of containers of ‘Milnut’, a product that fell within the scope of the Act, and which resulted in a sentence of either imprisonment or a $1000 fine as per s.63, the now appellee was charged with illegal distribution and misrepresentation, within which s.62 clearly expressed how:

“It is declared that filled milk, as herein defined, is an adulterated article of food, injurious to the public health, and its sale constitutes a fraud upon the public. It shall be unlawful for any person to ship or deliver for shipment in interstate or foreign commerce, any filled milk.”

Whereupon the matter was taken to appeal before the US Supreme Court under Criminal Appeals Act 1907. Here, the appellee demurred that application of the 1923 Act was subject to the limitations prescribed by the tenth amendment to the Constitution, which states that:

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

And that seizure of the prohibited goods was a breach of the fifth amendment to the Constitution, which expresses how:

“No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury…nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…”

Therefore the decision by Congress to create and apply prohibitive legislation which conflicts with the aims of the Constitution, was both ultra vires and an affront to the privacy rights and freedoms of the individual citizens of the United States of America.

Contrastingly, the Court drew reference to Hebe Co. v. Shaw, in which the Supreme Court ruled that any state law forbidding the manufacture and sale of filled milk under s.6(c) of the 1923 Act, which clarified how:

“The term ‘filled milk’ means any milk, cream, or skimmed milk, whether or not condensed, evaporated, concentrated, Powdered, dried, or desiccated, to which has been added, or which has been blended or compounded with, any fat or oil other than milk fat, so that the resulting product is in imitation or semblance of milk, cream, or skimmed milk, whether or not condensed, evaporated, concentrated, powdered, dried, or desiccated.”

Was not an infringement of the fourteenth amendment of the Constitution, which again stipulates that:

“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

This translated that while the rights afforded under the Constitution were exempt from the wishes of Congress, the importance of public interest and compelling evidence submitted by the House Committee on Agriculture and the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry in relation to ‘doctored’ milk, justified the prevention of misrepresentation through sensitive regulation, as opposed to wanton deprivation of liberty or distortion of justice. Thus it was for this fundamental reason that the Court dismissed the demurrer and reversed the judgment accordingly.

Key Citations

“Congress is free to exclude from interstate commerce articles whose use in the states for which they are destined it may reasonably conceive to be injurious to the public health, morals, or welfare…or which contravene the policy of the state of their destination…”

Allgeyer v State of Louisiana

US Constitutional Law

Allgeyer v State of Louisiana
Image: ‘Georgia Cotton’ by Marilyn M King

The powers of state legislation, while binding upon the citizens residing within its borders, doubtless remain subject to the supremacy of the constitution, and so on this occasion, a marine insurance policy drafted and bargained for in another part of the country, was held to allow for the unfettered rights of the insured, while reminding the pursuers that justice is a two-way process.

In the fall of 1894, the defendant cotton exporters negotiated an open marine insurance policy with providers based in New York. The terms of the agreement were drafted and released on the proviso that the defendant completed the transaction by way of written letter to the insurers operational address.

Around the same time, Act No.66 of the state of Louisiana was enacted, so as to prevent foreign insurance operators from issuing policies within the state unless licensed accordingly, as was expressed below:

“[A]ny person, firm or corporation who shall fill up, sign or issue in this state any certificate of insurance under an open marine policy, or who in any manner whatever does any act in this state to effect for himself, or for another, insurance on property then in this state, in any marine insurance company which has not complied in all respects with the laws of this state, shall be subject to a fine of one thousand dollars for each offense…”

Because the defendants were based in New Orleans, the claimants held that their entering into a contract with an insurance firm outside of Louisiana constituted a violation of those powers, and thus sought recovery of $3,000 in the courts.

In defence of the claim, it was argued that the terms of Act No.66 were unconstitutional in that such powers were an interference with the fundamental right to carry on business in a manner befitting the principles of the Constitution, while noting that the contract entered into was exempt from state jurisdiction, and executed in full accordance with the law.

While judgment was made in favour of the defendants, an appeal before the supreme court of Louisiana resulted in damages of £1000 for the claimants. It was at this point that the defendants requested a review by the US Supreme Court on grounds that the judgment had been made in error.

With an appreciation of the absolute powers conferred under Act No.66 (or art.236), it was found by the Court that in State of Louisiana v Williams the state court had ruled that:

“[A]n open policy of marine insurance, similar in all respects to the one herein described, and made by a foreign insurance company, not doing business within the state and having no agent therein, must be considered as made at the domicile of the company issuing the open policy, and that where in such case the insurance company had no agent in Louisiana it could not be considered as doing an insurance business within the state.”

While it was further noted that the writing and despatch of the acceptance letter by the appellants, was therefore nothing more than consideration within the terms of the agreement, and not sufficient enough to serve as evidence that the policy was underwritten and concluded within the state of Louisiana. The Court also drew reference to Butchers’ Union Slaughterhouse Co v Crescent City Live-Stock Landing Co, in which Justice Bradley stipulated how:

“[T]he right to follow any of the common occupations of life is an inalienable right. It was formulated as such under the phrase ‘pursuit of happiness’ in the Declaration of Independence, which commenced with the fundamental proposition that ‘all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”

And so it was with these salient observations, that the Court ruled Act No.66 as wholly unconstitutional to the fourteenth amendment of the federal constitution which itself reads:

“No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

And was therefore unsustainable as an argument for penalty, after which it was held that the Louisiana supreme court decision be reversed in lieu of recommencement of proceedings in keeping with the original judgment.

Key Citations

“Individual liberty of action must give way to the greater right of the collective people in the assertion of well-defined policy, designed and intended for the general welfare.”

“In the privilege of pursuing an ordinary calling or trade, and of acquiring, holding, and selling property, must be embraced the right to make all proper contracts in relation thereto…”

“The mere fact that a citizen may be within the limits of a particular state does not prevent his making a contract outside its limits while he himself remains within it.”