U.S. v. Price (1966)

US Constitutional Law

U.S. v. Price
‘Murder in Mississippi’ by Norman Rockwell

In a controversial case involving assault and murder, the actions of both law enforcement officers and citizens of Neshoba County, Mississippi, amounted to the wanton execution of three unarmed African-Americans in the same year that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was born.

Having detained the men on grounds unestablished during the appeal, the now defendant Deputy Sheriff released them without charge in the early hours of a June morning, only to later pull their vehicle over on Highway 19, whereupon he removed them from the car and drove them in his own police vehicle, to an unpaved road located off the highway.

It was there that the respondent, along with another seventeen men, two of which included a Sheriff Rainey and Patrolman Willis of the Philadelphia, Mississippi Police Department collectively assaulted, shot and killed the men in cold blood, before removing their bodies to a dam construction site located roughly five miles southwest of Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Upon indictment to the District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, the defendants were charged with direct violations of 18 U.S.C. §§  241 and 242, which read that:

“(§ 241) If two or more persons conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same….They shall be fined not more than $5,000 or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.”

(§ 242) Whoever, under color of any law, statute, ordinance, regulation, or custom, willfully subjects any person in any State….to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States….by reason of his color, or race….shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both….and if death results from the acts committed in violation of this section….shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned for any term of years or for life, or both, or may be sentenced to death.”

Along with allegations that the assaults were violative of the now-deceased victims’ rights to trial under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

With consideration of the limitations of constitutional statute, and the precedent that such protections were only enforceable between citizens and States, the court held the convictions unlawful and the charges were thus dismissed by a grand jury, after which the United States appealed to U.S. Supreme Court in the hope of greater clarity of judgment.

Tackling § 242 first, the Court noted that while the officers were clearly acting under ‘color of law’ in a literal sense, nothing altered the fact that the same term applied not only to those employed by the State, but to all civilians of the United States, therefore the Court upheld the charges while holding that:

“[T]hey were participants in official lawlessness, acting in wilful concert with State officers and hence under color of law.”

While in relation to § 241, the Court highlighted that in U.S. v. Williams, the Court had held § 241 as inapplicable to the Fourteenth Amendment, however the overall decision came not from uniform judicial agreement, but a single ruling of res judicata, which left the issue of applicability unanswered until now.

It was at this point that the Court held instead, how:

“s 241 must be read as it is written-to reach conspiracies to injure any citizen in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States; that this language includes rights or privileges protected by the Fourteenth Amendment….”

While adding that:

“[T]he State, without the semblance of due process of law as required of it by the Fourteenth Amendment, used its sovereign power and office to release the victims from jail so that they were not charged and tried as required by law, but instead could be intercepted and killed. If the Fourteenth Amendment forbids denial of counsel, it clearly denounces denial of any trial at all.”

After which the Court promptly reversed and remanded the case back to the district court, while reminding the parties that:

“[A] decision interpreting a federal law in accordance with its historical design, to punish denials by State action of constitutional rights of the person can hardly be regarded as adversely affecting the wise adjustment between State responsibility and national control…”

 

Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969)

US Constitutional Law

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

Freedom of speech and the right to incite action form the bedrock of the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.