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Feiner v. New York

    Citation. 340 U.S. 315, 71 S. Ct. 303, 95 L. Ed. 295, 1951 U.S. 2249.

    Brief Fact Summary. The Petitioner, Feiner (Petitioner), gave an impassioned political speech to a crowd while standing on sidewalk using a loud speaker. The crowd became restless and disruptive of traffic. As a result, a police officer approached the Petitioner and arrested him for breach of the peace.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. When clear and present danger of riot, disorder, interference with traffic upon the public streets, or other immediate threat to public safety, peace, or order appears, the State’s power to punish and prevent in such context is clear.


    Facts. The Petitioner, while standing on a box on a sidewalk, addressed a crowd of people through a loud speaker. Although the purpose of his speech was to get the listeners to attend a meeting, its contents included derogatory remarks about the President of the United States Harry Truman (President Truman) and local politicians and an impassioned plea for blacks to rise up and fight for their rights. The crowd became restless and was having the effect of disrupting traffic. As a result, a police officer approached the Petitioner, asked him several times to disperse the crowd, was ignored by the Petitioner, and therefore arrested him for breach of the peace. The Petitioner was later convicted.

    Issue. Did the arrest and conviction of the Petitioner violate his First Amendment constitutional rights?

    Held. No. The lower court is affirmed.
    We are not dealing here with a court that has blindly condoned the arbitrary exercise of police action. The courts have recognized the Petitioner’s right to hold a street meeting, to use loud-speakers and to make derogatory comments about public officials. Moreover, the evidence shows that the police here were solely concerned with preserving peace and order.

    Dissent. Justice Hugo Black (J. Black) stated that the Petitioner has been convicted for expressing unpopular views on matters of public concern on a public street corner. In the name of preserving the public order, the police must make every reasonable effort to control an unruly crowd before they interfere with a speaker, which they did not here. The police could have made efforts to clear a path on the sidewalk for pedestrians to walk, if the crowd was impeding traffic, before arresting the speaker. In addition, the police could have attempted to remove unruly members of the riled up audience, before interfering with the speaker.

    Discussion. This case draws into question the circumstances that must attend a constitutionally protected protest and what restrictions the police face in working to ensure that a protest is conducted peacefully. J. Black, dissenting, would impose more duties on the police than the majority to carryout their jobs and control a rowdy crowd, before they interfere directly with the speaker, thereby suppressing speech.

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