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Bridges v. California

    Citation. 314 U.S. 252, 62 S. Ct. 190, 86 L. Ed. 192, 1941 U.S. 1084.

    Brief Fact Summary. The president of a union was found guilty of contempt of court for publishing a copy of a telegram saying his union would strike if an adverse decision, subject to a motion to a new trial, was enforced. The publisher of the Los Angeles Times was found guilty of contempt for publishing editorials on the pending sentencings of two members of a labor union. The propriety of the convictions was brought into question.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The substantive evil must be extremely serious and the degree of imminence extremely high before utterances can be punished.


    Facts. While a motion for a new trial was pending, Bridges, president of a union against whom a trial judge ruled, published a copy of a telegram saying his union would strike if the adverse decision was enforced. As a result, Bridges was found guilty of contempt of court. In a companion case, Times-Mirror Co. v. Superior, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times was found guilty of contempt for publishing editorials on the pending sentencings of two members of a labor union. Bridges and Times-Mirror claimed that the contempt convictions violated their First Amendment constitutional rights.

    Issue. Did the contempt convictions of Bridges and Times-Mirror violate their rights of free speech and free press?

    Held. Yes. The lower court if reversed.
    Justice Hugo Black (J. Black) The convictions at issue punished utterances made during the pendency of a case, thereby restricting speech at the precise time when public interest in the matter was at its peek. Therefore, the convictions cannot be dismissed as insignificant. The substantive evils the convictions were designed to avert were (1) disrespect for the judiciary and (2) disorderly and unfair administration of justice. As such, the means (the convictions) do not fit the ends (the substantive evils). First, an enforced silence would probably engender resentment, suspicion, and contempt for the bench, not the respect it seeks. Second, as to the Times-Mirror indictment, to regard the published statements concerning pending sentencing as having an influence on the course of justice, is to impute to judges a lack of firmness, wisdom or honor. Third, as to the Bridges situation, we cannot assume that the judge wasn’t already unaware of the possibility of a strike, which the laws o
    f California do not prohibit anyway.

    Dissent. Justice Felix Frankfurter (J. Frankfurter) While freedom of speech and the press applies to the work of the courts, freedom of expression cannot be allowed to nullify our constitutional guarantees of an impartial trial.

    Discussion. This case draws into conflict two of our most cherished rights: the right to free speech and the right to a fair trial. To balance these competing interests the court takes into account several factors in this case, such as (1) whether the litigation is still pending; (2) the courage and fortitude a judge can be expected to have; (3) whether judges should be able to anticipate certain consequences, without regard for whether particular information is published, etc.

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