Edwards v. South Carolina

482 U.S. 578

Case Year: 1963

Case Ruling: 8-1, Reversed

Opinion Justice: Stewart

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Black, Brennan, Douglas, Goldberg, Harlan, Warren, White


1st Concurring Opinion



1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Clark


2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


On March 2, 1961, a group of black high school and college students met at a Baptist church in Columbia, South Carolina. At noon they walked toward the state capitol building to protest conditions of racial discrimination in the state. When they arrived, thirty law enforcement officers met the group and told the protesters that they could assemble on capitol grounds as long as they were peaceful. For the next hour, the group walked in an orderly fashion, carrying signs with messages such as "Down with Segregation." In time, a peaceful, nonobstructive crowd of two hundred to three hundred had gathered. Although no violence appeared imminent, the officers told the demonstrators to disperse within five minutes or face arrest. Instead, the protestors engaged in what the city manager later described as "boisterous, loud, and flamboyant" conduct. They held hands and sang, "I shall not be moved." Police eventually arrested 187 of the protesters, and they were convicted under the state's breach of peace law.

On appeal to the Supreme Court, the attorney for the protesters, Jack Greenberg of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, stressed the fact that no violence had occurred or had been likely to occur. The state pointed to the need to insure against a breakdown in order.



... [I]t is clear to us that in arresting, convicting, and punishing the petitioners under the circumstances disclosed by this record, South Carolina infringed the petitioners' constitutionally protected rights of free speech, free assembly, and freedom to petition for redress of their grievances.

It has long been established that these First Amendment freedoms are protected by the Fourteenth Amendment from invasion by the States.... The circumstances in this case reflect an exercise of these basic constitutional rights in their most pristine and classic form. The petitioners felt aggrieved by laws of South Carolina which allegedly "prohibited Negro privileges in this State." They peaceably assembled at the site of the State Government and there peaceably expressed their grievances "to the citizens of South Carolina, along with the Legislative Bodies of South Carolina." Not until they were told by police officials that they must disperse on pain of arrest did they do more. Even then, they but sang patriotic and religious songs after one of their leaders had delivered a "religious harangue." There was no violence or threat of violence on their part, or on the part of any member of the crowd watching them. Police protection was "ample."

This, therefore, was a far cry from the situation in Feiner v. New York [1951], where two policemen were faced with a crowd which was "pushing, shoving and milling around," ... where at least one member of the crowd "threatened violence if the police did not act," ... where "the crowd was pressing closer around petitioner and the officer," ... and where "the speaker passes the bounds of argument or persuasion and undertakes incitement to riot."... And the record is barren of any evidence of "fighting words." See Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire [1942].

We do not review in this case criminal convictions resulting from the evenhanded application of a precise and narrowly drawn regulatory statute evincing a legislative judgment that certain specific conduct be limited or proscribed. If, for example, the petitioners had been convicted upon evidence that they had violated a law regulating traffic, or had disobeyed a law reasonably limiting the periods during which the State House grounds were open to the public, this would be a different case.... These petitioners were convicted of an offense so generalized as to be, in the words of the South Carolina Supreme Court, "not susceptible of exact definition." And they were convicted upon evidence which showed no more than that the opinions which they were peaceably expressing were sufficiently opposed to the views of the majority of the community to attract a crowd and necessitate police protection.

The Fourteenth Amendment does not permit a State to make criminal the peaceful expression of unpopular views. "[A] function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea. That is why freedom of speech ... is ... protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest.... There is no room under our Constitution for a more restrictive view. For the alternative would lead to standardization of ideas either by legislatures, courts, or dominant political or community groups."Terminiello v. Chicago [1949]. As in the Terminiello case, the courts of South Carolina have defined a criminal offense so as to permit conviction of the petitioners if their speech "stirred people to anger, invited public dispute, or brought about a condition of unrest. A conviction resting on any of those grounds may not stand."...

As Chief Justice Hughes wrote in Stromberg v. California [1931], "The maintenance of the opportunity for free political discussion to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people and that changes may be obtained by lawful means, an opportunity essential to the security of the Republic, is a fundamental principle of our constitutional system. A statute which upon its face, and as authoritatively construed, is so vague and indefinite as to permit the punishment of the fair use of this opportunity is repugnant to the guaranty of liberty contained in the Fourteenth Amendment...."

For these reasons we conclude that these criminal convictions cannot stand.



... Here 200 youthful Negro demonstrators were being aroused to a "fever pitch" before a crowd of some 300 people who undoubtedly were hostile. Perhaps their speech was not so animated but in this setting their actions, their placards reading "You may jail our bodies but not our souls" and their chanting of "I Shall Not Be Moved," accompanied by stamping feet and clapping hands, created a much greater danger of riot and disorder. It is my belief that anyone conversant with the almost spontaneous combustion in some Southern communities in such a situation will agree that the City Manager's action may well have averted a major catastrophe. The gravity of the danger here surely needs no further explication. The imminence of that danger has been emphasized at every stage of this proceeding, from the complaints charging that the demonstrations "tended directly to immediate violence" to the State Supreme Court's affirmance on the authority of Feiner. This record, then, shows no steps backward from a standard of "clear and present danger." But to say that the police may not intervene until the riot has occurred is like keeping out the doctor until the patient dies. I cannot subscribe to such a doctrine....

I would affirm the convictions.