1952 April 28

Supreme Court Upholds Illinois “Group Libel” Law


In a case that grew out of continuing conflict over racial integration of residential neighborhoods in Chicago in the post-World War II years, Joseph Beauharnais, president of the White Circle League, was convicted of both distributing an anti-African-American leaflet and violating an Illinois “group libel” law. Group libel laws prohibit making defamatory statements about racial, ethnic religious, or other definable groups. In Beauharnais v. Illinois, decided on this day, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law by a 5–4 vote, with the Court’s civil libertarian justices in the minority.

In another case arising from white resistance to racial integration in Chicago, the Supreme Court, on May 16, 1949, reversed the conviction of Arthur Terminiello, a suspended Catholic priest, who had been convicted under a Chicago breach-of-the-peace ordinance of making offensive remarks. The Supreme Court has never directly reversed the Beauharnais decision, but it has been effectively nullified through a number of subsequent decisions, including New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, decided on March 9, 1964, and Brandenburg v. Ohio, decided on June 9, 1969.

The Illinois group libel law upheld on this day in Beauharnais was directly implicated in the famous Skokie controversy in the 1970s over the right of a Nazi group to march in the heavily Jewish community of Skokie, Illinois. By then, however, First Amendment law had developed into a much stronger defense of offensive speech, and an important Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision, on May 22, 1978, that upheld the right of the Nazi group to march rejected but did not explicitly overturn the Illinois law.

Justice Hugo Black dissenting (with Justice William O. Douglas concurring): The Illinois law “sets up a system of state censorship which is at war with the kind of free government envisioned by those who forced adoption of our Bill of Rights. The motives behind the state law may have been to do good. But the same can be said about most laws making opinions punishable as crimes. History indicates that urges to do good have led to the burning of books, and even to the burning of ‘witches.’”

Learn more about hate speech: Samuel Walker, Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy (1994)

Learn more about the history of African Americans in Chicago: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/27.html

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