1931 May 18

Supreme Court Declares California “Red Flag” Law Unconstitutional


Nineteen-year-old Yetta Stromberg, attending a Communist-sponsored summer camp, was arrested on August 3, 1929 for violating the California Red Flag Law (see below). A red flag was the symbol of communism and a black flag the symbol of anarchism. The California law banned the display of both.  Children at the camp began each day with a ceremony with a pledge, “I pledge allegiance to the workers’ red flag.”

In Stromberg v. California, decided on this day, the Supreme Court declared the California law an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.

The decision was one of two pro-civil liberties decisions by the Court in 1931, and they indicated that the Court was becoming more receptive to protecting civil liberties. The other case was Near v. Minnesota (June 1, 1931), which declared prior restraints of publications a violation of freedom of the press under the First Amendment.

The California law: “Any person who displays a red flag, banner or badge or any flag, badge, banner, or device of any color or form whatever in any public place or in any meeting place or public assembly, or from or on any house, building or window as a sign, symbol or emblem of opposition to organized government or as an invitation or stimulus to anarchistic action or as an aid to propaganda that is of a seditious character is guilty of a felony.”

Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes: “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.”

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