De Jonge v. State of Oregon

299 U.S. 353

Case Year: 1937

Case Ruling: 8-0, Reversed

Opinion Justice: Hughes

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Brandeis, Butler, Cardozo, McReynolds, Roberts, Sutherland, VanDevanter


1st Concurring Opinion



1st Dissenting Opinion



2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion



3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


On July 27, 1934, a meeting was held in Portland, Oregon, under the sponsorship of the local Communist Party to protest actions taken by Portland police against striking longshoremen and the police force's illegal raiding of workers' homes and meeting places. Of the 150-300 people who attended, less than 15 percent were members of the Communist Party. The meeting was open to the public and there was no admission fee. Although it was peaceful and orderly, police raided the meeting before it ended. A number of participants, including Dirk De Jonge, were arrested, and a quantity of communist literature was seized.

De Jonge, who had attended as a member of the Communist Party, had been the second individual to speak. His speech had detailed a long list of grievances against the city and the shipping companies relative to the ongoing maritime industry strike. He also had encouraged membership in the Communist Party and urged those in attendance to purchase the Party literature available at the meeting.

De Jonge was charged with violating the state's criminal syndicalism law, which makes it unlawful to advocate violent or illegal methods as a way of effecting industrial or political change. Specifically, the indictment charged De Jonge with assisting in the organization of a meeting called by a group that advocated criminal syndicalism. In defense, he argued that nothing illegal had occurred at the meeting and that his speech had not advocated any unlawful action. He was found guilty, however, and sentenced to seven years in prison. The state supreme court affirmed the conviction. In the view of that court, what happened at the July 27 meeting was immaterial. The charge was that De Jonge had organized a meeting for a group that advocated criminal syndicalism and there appeared to be ample evidence that he had done so.



... [De Jonge's] sole offense as charged, and for which he was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for seven years, was that he had assisted in the conduct of a public meeting, albeit otherwise lawful, which was held under the auspices of the Communist Party.

The broad reach of the statute as thus applied is plain. While defendant was a member of the Communist Party, that membership was not necessary to conviction on such a charge. A like fate might have attended any speaker, although not a member who 'assisted in the conduct' of the meeting. However innocuous the object of the meeting, however lawful the subjects and tenor of the addresses, however reasonable and timely the discussion, all those assisting in the conduct of the meeting would be subject to imprisonment as felons if the meeting were held by the Communist Party. This manifest result was brought out sharply at this bar by the concessions which the Attorney General made, and could not avoid, in the light of the decision of the state court. Thus, if the Communist Party had called a public meeting in Portland to discuss the tariff, or the foreign policy of the government, or taxation, or relief, or candidacies for the offices of President, members of Congress, Governor, or state legislators, every speaker who assisted in the conduct of the meeting would be equally guilty with the defendant in this case, upon the charge as here defined and sustained. The list of illustrations might be indefinitely extended to every variety of meetings under the auspices of the Communist Party although held for the discussion of political issues or to adopt protests and pass resolutions of an entirely innocent and proper character.

While the States are entitled to protect themselves from the abuse of the privileges of our institutions through an attempted substitution of force and violence in the place of peaceful political action in order to effect revolutionary changes in government, none of our decisions go to the length of sustaining such a curtailment of the right of free speech and assembly as the Oregon statute demands in its present application....

Freedom of speech and of the press are fundamental rights which are safeguarded by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution.... The right of peaceable assembly is a right cognate to those of free speech and free press and is equally fundamental. As this Court said in United States v. Cruikshank [1876]: 'The very idea of a government, republican in form, implies a right on the part of its citizens to meet peaceably for consultation in respect to public affairs and to petition for a redress of grievances.' The First Amendment of the Federal Constitution expressly guarantees that right against abridgment by Congress. But explicit mention there does not argue exclusion elsewhere. For the right is one that cannot be denied without violating those fundamental principles of liberty and justice which lie at the base of all civil and political institutions-principles which the Fourteenth Amendment embodies in the general terms of its due process clause....

These rights may be abused by using speech or press or assembly in order to incite to violence and crime. The people through their Legislatures may protect themselves against that abuse. But the legislative intervention can find constitutional justification only by dealing with the abuse. The rights themselves must not be curtailed. The greater the importance of safeguarding the community from incitements to the overthrow of our institutions by force and violence, the more imperative is the need to preserve inviolate the constitutional rights of free speech, free press and free assembly in order to maintain the opportunity for free political discussion, to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people and that changes, if desired, may be obtained by peaceful means. Therein lies the security of the Republic, the very foundation of constitutional government.

It follows from these considerations that, consistently with the Federal Constitution, peaceable assembly for lawful discussion cannot be made a crime. The holding of meetings for peaceable political action cannot be proscribed. Those who assist in the conduct of such meetings cannot be branded as criminals on that score. The question, if the rights of free speech and peaceable assembly are to be preserved, is not as to the auspices under which the meeting is held but as to its purpose; not as to the relations of the speakers, but whether their utterances transcend the bounds of the freedom of speech which the Constitution protects. If the persons assembling have committed crimes elsewhere, if they have formed or are engaged in a conspiracy against the public peace and order, they may be prosecuted for their conspiracy or other violation of valid laws. But it is a different matter when the State, instead of prosecuting them for such offenses, seizes upon mere participation in a peaceable assembly and a lawful public discussion as the basis for a criminal charge.

We are not called upon to review the findings of the state court as to the objectives of the Communist Party. Notwithstanding those objectives, the defendant still enjoyed his personal right of free speech and to take part in a peaceable assembly having a lawful purpose, although called by that party. The defendant was none the less entitled to discuss the public issues of the day and thus in a lawful manner, without incitement to violence or crime, to seek redress of alleged grievances. That was of the essence of his guaranteed personal liberty. We hold that the Oregon statute as applied to the particular charge as defined by the state court is repugnant to the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The judgment of conviction is reversed and the cause is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.