1949 May 16

Supreme Court: First Amendment Protects Provocative Speech


Arthur Terminiello was a suspended Catholic priest in Chicago who was active in opposing racial integration of Chicago neighborhoods. Disorder broke out when he gave a racist speech to an audience of 800 (with another 1,000 people outside). He was arrested and convicted of breach of the peace. On appeal, in Terminiello v. Chicago, the Supreme Court on this day reversed his conviction, holding that his speech was protected by the First Amendment.

This case was one of several incidents in post-World War II Chicago involving conflict and even riots over racial integration. In Beauharnais v. Illinois, decided on April 28, 1952, the Supreme Court rejected free speech arguments and upheld a state “group libel” law. Group libel laws prohibit offensive remarks about racial, ethnic, religious, or other identifiable groups.

The issue of hate speech arose again in a national controversy over the request of a small Nazi group to hold a demonstration in the heavily Jewish community of Skokie, Illinois. The group requested a permit for a demonstration on October 4, 1976, the city made strenuous efforts to deny it, but the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals granted a right to the permit in an important First Amendment case on May 22, 1978.

Justice Douglas for the Court: “. . .  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, though not absolute,  is nevertheless 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.”

Read: Samuel Walker, Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy (1994)

Learn more about freedom of speech: http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/category/speech

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