Prince v. Massachusetts
321 U.S. 158 (1944)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944)

Prince v. Massachusetts

No. 98

Argued December 14, 1943

Decided January 31, 1944

321 U.S. 158




1. A state statute provides that no minor (boy under 12 or girl under 18) shall sell, or offer for sale, upon the streets or in other public places, any newspapers, magazines, periodicals, or other articles of merchandise. The statute makes it unlawful for any person to furnish to a minor any article which he knows the minor intends to sell in violation of the law, and for any parent or guardian to permit a minor to work in violation of the law.

Held -- as applied

Page 321 U. S. 159

to a guardian who furnished a minor ward with religious literature and permitted the minor to distribute the same on the streets, although the guardian accompanied the minor and both were -- acting in accord with their religious beliefs -- not violative of freedom of religion, nor a denial of the equal protection of the laws, under the Fourteenth Amendment of the Federal Constitution. P. 321 U. S. 167.

2. Whether there was a "sale" or "offer to sell," and whether what the minor was doing was "work," within the meaning of the State statute, were question of local law upon which, on this record, the decision of the state court is binding here. P. 321 U. S. 163.

3. With respect to the public proclaiming of religion in streets and other public place, as in the case of other freedoms, the power of the State to control the conduct of children is broader than its power over adults. P. 321 U. S. 170.

4. There is no denial of equal protection of the laws in excluding children of a particular sect from such use of the streets as is barred also to all other children. P. 321 U. S. 170.

313 Mass. 223, 46 N.E.2d 755, affirmed.

APPEAL from a judgment entered on a rescript from the highest court of the State, which sustained convictions on two of three complaints for violations of a state statute.

MR. JUSTICE RUTLEDGE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The case brings for review another episode in the conflict between Jehovah's Witnesses and state authority. This time Sarah Prince appeals from convictions for violating Massachusetts' child labor laws, by acts said to be a rightful exercise of her religious convictions. When the offenses were committed, she was the aunt and custodian of Betty M. Simmons, a girl nine years of age. Originally, there were three separate complaints. They

Page 321 U. S. 160

were, shortly, for (1) refusal to disclose Betty's identity and age to a public officer whose duty was to enforce the statutes; (2) furnishing her with magazines, knowing she was to sell them unlawfully, that is, on the street, and (3) as Betty's custodian, permitting her to work contrary to law. The complaints were made, respectively, pursuant to §§ 79, 80 and 81 of Chapter 149, Gen.Laws of Mass. (Ter. Ed.). The Supreme Judicial Court reversed the conviction under the first complaint on state grounds, [Footnote 1] but sustained the judgments founded on the other two. [Footnote 2] 313 Mass. 223, 46 N.E.2d 755. They present the only questions for our decision. These are whether §§ 80 and 81, as applied, contravene the Fourteenth Amendment by denying or abridging appellant's freedom of religion and by denying to her the equal protection of the laws.

Sections 80 and 81 form parts of Massachusetts' comprehensive child labor law. [Footnote 3] They provide methods for enforcing the prohibitions of § 69, which is as follows:

"No boy under twelve and no girl under eighteen shall sell, expose or offer for sale any newspapers, magazines, periodicals or any other articles of merchandise of any

Page 321 U. S. 161

description, or exercise the trade of bootblack or scavenger, or any other trade, in any street or public place."

Sections 80 and 81, so far as pertinent, read:

"Whoever furnishes or sells to any minor any article of any description with the knowledge that the minor intends to sell such article in violation of any provision of sections sixty-nine to seventy-three, inclusive, or after having received written notice to this effect from any officer charged with the enforcement thereof, or knowingly procures or encourages any minor to violate any provisions of said sections, shall be punished by a fine of not less than ten nor more than two hundred dollars or by imprisonment for not more than two months, or both."

§ 80.

"Any parent, guardian or custodian having a minor under his control who compels or permits such minor to work in violation of any provision of sections sixty to seventy-four, inclusive, . . . shall for a first offense be punished by a fine of not less than two nor more than ten dollars or by imprisonment for not more than five days, or both; . . ."

§ 81.

The story told by the evidence has become familiar. It hardly needs repeating, except to give setting to the variations introduced through the part played by a child of tender years. Mrs. Prince, living in Brockton, is the mother of two young sons. She also has legal custody of Betty Simmons, who lives with them. The children, too, are Jehovah's Witnesses, and both Mrs. Prince and Betty testified they were ordained ministers. The former was accustomed to go each week on the streets of Brockton to distribute "Watchtower" and "Consolation," according to the usual plan. [Footnote 4] She had permitted the children to

Page 321 U. S. 162

engage in this activity previously, and had been warned against doing so by the school attendance officer, Mr. Perkins. But, until December 18, 1941, she generally did not take them with her at night.

That evening, as Mrs. Prince was preparing to leave her home, the children asked to go. She at first refused. Child-like, they resorted to tears; and, mother-like, she yielded. Arriving downtown, Mrs. Prince permitted the children "to engage in the preaching work with her upon the sidewalks." That is, with specific reference to Betty, she and Mrs. Prince took positions about twenty feet apart near a street intersection. Betty held up in her hand, for passers-by to see, copies of "Watch Tower" and "Consolation." From her shoulder hung the usual canvas magazine bag, on which was printed: "Watchtower and Consolation 5

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