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Beauharnais v. Illinois

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Brief Fact Summary. The Petitioner, Beauharnais (Petitioner), was convicted of violating a state statute that outlawed the dissemination of printed racist materials.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. Racist speech is not protected speech. A state may regulate this type of speech to maintain the peace and order.

Points of Law - Legal Principles in this Case for Law Students.

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.

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Facts. The Respondent, Illinois (Respondent), has a criminal code that expressly prohibits the publishing or presentation of any racist materials by any person, corporation or organization. The Petitioner was charged with violating this code when he distributed leaflets complaining of the “encroachment, harassment and invasion of white people their property, neighborhoods and persons, by the Negro.” He also attached a membership application for the White Circle League of America, Inc.

Issue. Does the protection of “liberty” in the Due Process Clause prevent a state from punishing libel towards a group?

Held. No. Libel is in the same class as fighting words. The state had a legitimate purpose for forbidding the distribution of racist materials.

Dissent. This is a content-based law that should be held to strict scrutiny instead of the weak rational basis analysis.

Discussion. Libel is regarded as a close relation to fighting words because of the history of racism experienced by the state. The effects of racist words caused riots and violence throughout the state. Therefore, the state is justified in prohibiting such activity in order to maintain the peace.

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