Douglas v. City of Jeannette
319 U.S. 157 (1943)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Douglas v. City of Jeannette, 319 U.S. 157 (1943)

Douglas v. City of Jeannette

No. 450

Argued March 10, 11, 1943

Decided May 3, 1943

319 U.S. 157

Syllabus

1. Members of Jehovah's Witnesses, in their own behalf and in behalf of all other Jehovah's Witnesses in the State and in adjoining States, brought suit in a federal District Court to restrain a city and its mayor from enforcing against them an ordinance prohibiting the solicitation of orders for merchandise without first procuring a license from the city authorities and paying a license tax. The complaint, praying equitable relief, alleged, in substance, that the defendants, by arrest, detention and criminal prosecution of the complainants and other Jehovah's Witnesses, had subjected them to deprivation of their rights of freedom of speech, press and religion, and that the defendants threaten to continue to enforce the ordinance by arrests and prosecutions. The suit was not based nor maintainable on the ground of diversity of citizenship, but was alleged to arise

Page 319 U. S. 158

under the Constitution and laws of the United States, including the Civil Rights Act of 1871.

Held:

(1) The suit was within the jurisdiction of the District Court under 28 U.S.C. § 41(14) irrespective of the amount in controversy. P. 319 U. S. 161.

(2) The federal District Court, in the exercise of its discretion, should have refused to enjoin the threatened criminal prosecutions in the state courts. P. 319 U. S. 165.

2. The guaranties of the First Amendment are protected by the Fourteenth Amendment against encroachment by the States. P. 319 U. S. 162.

3. Allegations of fact sufficient to show deprivation of the right of free speech under the First Amendment are sufficient to establish deprivation of a constitutional right guaranteed by the Fourteenth, and to state a cause of action under the Civil Rights Act, whenever it appears that the abridgment of the right is effected under color of a state statute or ordinance. P. 319 U. S. 162.

4. Though a federal court have power as such to decide the cause, it should raise sua sponte the question of want of equity jurisdiction where its powers are invoked to interfere by injunction with threatened criminal prosecutions in a state court. P. 319 U. S. 162.

5. It is the policy of Congress generally to leave to the state courts the trial of criminal cases arising under state laws, subject to review by this Court of any federal questions involved, and the federal courts should conform to this policy by refusing to interfere with or embarrass threatened proceedings in state courts save in those exceptional cases which call for the interposition of a court of equity to prevent irreparable injury which is clear and imminent, and equitable remedies infringing this independence of the States -- though they might otherwise be given -- should be withheld if sought on slight or inconsequential grounds. P. 319 U. S. 163.

6. It does not appear from the record that petitioners have been threatened with any injury other than that incidental to any criminal prosecution brought lawfully and in good faith; or that a federal court of equity could rightly afford petitioners any protection which they could not secure by prompt trial in the state courts and appeal pursued to this Court; or that, in view of the decision in Murdock v. Pennsylvania, ante p. 319 U. S. 105, there is ground for supposing that, in order to secure for the future the complainants' constitutional rights, the intervention of a federal court will be either necessary or appropriate. P. 319 U. S. 164.

130 F.2d 652, affirmed.

Page 319 U. S. 159

CERTIORARI, 318 U.S. 749, to review the reversal of a decree, 39 F.Supp. 32, enjoining the enforcement against petitioners of a municipal ordinance.

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