The petitioner, who led the circulation of leaflet that involved racial remark against the blacks, was convicted under an Illinois criminal group libel law prohibiting the publishing, selling, or exhibiting in any public place of any publication which “portrays depravity, criminality, or lack of virtue of a class of citizens, of any race, color, creed or religion … or which exposes the citizens of any race, color, religion to contempt or derision.
If an utterance directed at an individual may be the object of criminal sanctions, a State may punish the same utterance directed at a defined group, unless it is a willful and purposeless restriction unrelated to the peace and well-being of the State.
Beauharnais, president of the White Circle League in Illinois, had organized the circulation of a leaflet that included a petition calling on Chicago officials “to halt the further encroachment, harassment, and invasion of white people … by the Negro.” The leaflet called on white people in Chicago to unite and warned that if “persuasion and the need to prevent the white race from becoming mongrelized by the negro will not unite us” then the aggression of the negro surely will. The petitioner was convicted.
Does the Fourteenth Amendment prevent a State from punishing libels directed at designated individuals or groups?
No, libelous utterances are not within the area of constitutionally protected speech. Moreover, because the speech done by the petitioner is concededly punishable when immediately directed at individuals, such speech is also punishable if directed at groups with whose position and esteem in society the affiliated individual may be inextricably involved.
The limited scope of the law of criminal libel has confined state punishment of speech and expression to the narrowest areas of the law of criminal libel so as to punish individuals delivering false, malicious utterances about racial and religious matters, not against huge groups. The First Amendment only forbids such laws without any ‘ifs’ or ‘buts.’
Illinois could conclude from the State’s own experience that willful purveyors of falsehood concerning racial and religious groups promote strife and tend powerfully to obstruct the adjustments required for free, ordered life in the community. Illinois has been the scene of exacerbated tension between races, often resulting in violence and destruction. In many of these outbreaks, utterances of the same kind done by the petitioner played a significant part. Considering the history and the frequent extreme racial and religious propaganda, Illinois legislature may legitimately punish malicious defamation of racial and religious groups.