Citation. 310 U.S. 296, 60 S. Ct. 900, 84 L. Ed. 1213, 1940 U.S. 591.
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Brief Fact Summary.
A Jehovah’s Witnesses was convicted on a charge of breach of the peace for playing a phonograph record sharply critical of the Catholic religion to persons he encountered on the street.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
A State may proscribe speech if it amounts to a breach of the peace, which encompasses not only violent acts, but also acts and words likely to produce violence in others.
Jesse Cantwell (Cantwell), a Jehovah’s Witnesses, was convicted on the charge of breach of the peace for playing a phonograph record sharply critical of the Catholic religion to persons he encountered on the street. His intent was to proselytize his listeners. Prior to his arrest, there was no evidence that Cantwell’s deportment was noisy or offensive. Moreover, although the message on the record was offensive, it was only played to persons who voluntarily agreed to listen.
Did the arrest and conviction of Cantwell for violating the common law offense of breach of the peace violate his constitutional rights of free speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution)?
Yes. The lower court is reversed.
Justice Owen Roberts (J. Roberts) stated that while it is obvious that the principles of freedom of speech and religion do not sanction incitement to riot or violence, it is equally obvious that a State may not unduly suppress free communication of views under the guise of maintaining desirable conditions. With these considerations in mind, we note that there was no evidence of assaultive behavior or threatening of bodily harm, no truculent bearing, no profane, abusive, indecent remarks directed to the person of the hearer. Thus, it cannot be said that Cantwell’s actions resulted in a breach of the peace or an incitement to a breach thereof.
By ruling that the facts of this case, speaking to an audience hostile to ones message, does not amount to a breach of the peace, the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) gives insight into the degree of public disorder it requires to permit a government to regulate free expression on those grounds.