1965 April 26

Supreme Court Limits Seizure of Organization’s Records: Dombrowski v. Pfister


James Dombrowski was head of the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF), a left-liberal social action organization devoted to the rights of working people and racial justice in the South. In 1963, Louisiana officials raided the SCEF offices, arrested him, and seized all the organization’s records. Dombrowski sued, charging harassment, arrests without intent to prosecute, and the seizure of necessary internal documents. The suit was dismissed by the Circuit Court of Appeals, but the Supreme Court, in Dombrowski v. Pfister, decided on this day, upheld Dombrowski’s claim on the grounds that the state’s actions had a “chilling effect” on First Amendment activities.

The Court (in part): “A criminal prosecution under a statute regulating expression usually involves imponderables and contingencies that themselves may inhibit the full exercise of First Amendment freedoms. . . . When the statutes also have an overbroad sweep, as is here alleged, the hazard of loss or substantial impairment of those precious rights may be critical.”

Learn more about SCEF: Linda Reed, Simple Decency and Common Sense: The Southern Conference Movement, 1938–1963 (1991)

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