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Marsh v. Alabama

Citation. 326 U.S. 501 (1946)
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Brief Fact Summary.

A religious person undertook to distribute religious literature on the premises of a company-owned town contrary to the wishes of the town’s management. After her refusal to leave the town when asked by the city officer, she was convicted for violating the state law.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Any kind of town, including those owned by corporations, may not restrict the liberty of press and religion and the state statute may not criminally punish individuals who attempt to distribute religious literature in the town.


The town known as Chickasaw is owned by the Gulf Shipbuilding Corporation and has all the characteristics of any other American town. Appellant, a Jehovah’s Witness, came onto the sidewalk, stood near the post office and undertook to distribute religious literature. In the stores, the corporation had posted a notice which read as “this is private property, and without written permission, no solicitation of any kind will be permitted.” Appellant was warned that she could not distribute the literature without a permit and told that no permit would be issued to her. When she was asked to leave the sidewalk and Chickasaw, she declined. The deputy sheriff arrested her and she was convicted in the state court with violating the statute that makes is crime to enter or remain on the premises of another after having been warned not to do so.


Can the First and Fourteenth Amendments impose criminal punishment on a person who undertakes to distribute religious literature on the premises of a company-owned town contrary to the wishes of the town’s management?


No. When the Court balances the constitutional rights of owners of property against those of the people to enjoy freedom of press and religion, the latter occupy a preferred position. The circumstance that the property rights to the premises where the deprivation of liberty, here involved, took place, were held by others than the public, is not sufficient to justify the State’s permitting a corporation to govern a community of citizens so as to restrict their fundamental liberties and the enforcement of such restraint by the application of a state statute. Therefore, the State may not impose criminal punishment on appellant for undertaking to distribute religious literature in a company town.


Justice Reed

The rights of the owner are not outweighed by the interests of the trespasser, though he trespasses in behalf of religion or free speech. Appellant here could engage in such practices on the public highways without committing a trespass.


Whether a corporation or a municipality owns or possesses the town the public in either case has an identical interest in the functioning of the community in such manner that the channels of communication remain free. Many people in the United States live in company-owned towns. There is no more reason for depriving these people of the liberties guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments than there is for curtailing these freedoms with respect to any other citizen. The town of Chickasaw does not function differently from any other town. The business block serves as the community shopping center and is freely accessible and open to the people in the area. The managers appointed by the corporation cannot curtail the liberty of press and religion of these people consistently with the purposes of the constitutional guarantees. The state statute, at issue, which enforces such action by criminally punishing those who attempt to distribute religious literature clearly violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

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