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Beauharnais v. Illinois

    Citation. 343 U.S. 250, 72 S. Ct. 725, 96 L. Ed. 919, 1952 U.S. 2799.

    Brief Fact Summary. The Petitioner, Beauharnais (Petitioner), president of the White Circle League, organized the distribution of a leaflet setting forth a petition calling on the mayor and the city counsel of Chicago to “halt the further encroachment, harassment and invasion of white people, their property, neighborhoods and persons, by the Negro.” The leaflet called for “one million self-respecting white people in Chicago to unite” and added that, “if persuasion and the need to prevent the white race from becoming mongrelized by the Negro will not unite us, then the aggressions, rapes, robberies, knives, guns and marijuana of the Negro surely will.” Attached to the leaflet was an application for membership in the league.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. If an utterance directed at an individual may be the object of criminal sanctions, the court cannot deny to a State power to punish the same utterance directed at a defined group, unless the court can say that it is a willful and purposeless restriction unrelated to the peace and well-being of a state.


    Facts. As a result of the Petitioner’s participation in the distribution of the leaflet, he was convicted under an Illinois state statute declaring it unlawful for any person to distribute any publication “that portrays depravity, criminality, unchastity or lack of virtue of a class of citizens, of any race, color, creed or religion, which publication exposes those citizens to contempt, derision, or obloquy or which is productive of breach of the peace or riots.” At trial, the judge refused to instruct the jury that in order to convict, they must find “that the article complained of was likely to produce a clear and present danger of serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance or unrest.” The trial judge also refused to consider the Petitioner’s offer of proof on the issue of truth, because, under Illinois law, the defense of truth is unavailable in a prosecution for criminal libel unless “the truth of all facts in the utterance be shown together wit
    h good motive for the publication.”

    Issue. Whether the United States Constitution (Constitution) prevents a state from punishing libels directed at designated collectivities and that are flagrantly disseminated?]

    Held. The Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) finds no warrant in the Constitution for denying Illinois the power to pass the law under attack in this case. As a result, the judgment of the trial court is affirmed.

    Dissent. Dissenting opinions were offered by both Justices William Douglas (J. Douglas) and Hugo Black (J. Black).
    J. Douglas: The scope of the criminal libel statute is very narrow. Every ruling like the one offered by the majority and every expansion of the law of criminal libel threatens to punish and invade an area that has traditionally been protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.
    Black: If the statute in question is to override the First Amendment of the Constitution, then the peril of such speech must be clear and present.

    Discussion. The message communicated by the Petitioner and the White Circle League is not subject to a willful and purposeless restriction unrelated to the peace and well-being of the State of Illinois. The majority decision reviewed the recent history of race relations in the state and determined that the ordinance at issue and its application were related to the peace and well-being of the state.

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