Cox v. Louisiana
379 U.S. 536 (1965)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Cox v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536 (1965)

Cox v. Louisiana

No. 24

Argued October 21, 1964

Decided January 18, 1965

379 U.S. 536

Syllabus

Appellant was the leader of a civil rights demonstration in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, of 2,000 Negro students protesting segregation and the arrest and imprisonment the previous day of other Negro students who had participated in a protest against racial segregation. The group assembled a few blocks from the courthouse, where appellant identified himself to officers as the group's leader and explained the purpose of the demonstration. Following his refusal to disband the group, appellant led it in an orderly march toward the courthouse. In the vicinity of the courthouse, officers stopped appellant who, after explaining the purpose and program of the demonstration, was told by the Police Chief that he could hold the meeting so long as he confined it to the west side of the street. Appellant directed the group to the west sidewalk, across the street from the courthouse and 101 feet from its steps. There, the group, standing five feet deep and occupying almost the entire block but not obstructing the street, displayed signs and sang songs which evoked response from the students in the courthouse jail. Appellant addressed the group. The Sheriff, construing as inflammatory appellant's concluding exhortation to the students to "sit in" at uptown lunch counters, ordered dispersal of the group which, not being directly forthcoming, was effected by tear gas. Appellant was arrested the next day and was convicted of peace disturbance, obstructing public passages, and courthouse picketing. The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed the convictions, two of which (peace disturbance and obstructing public passages) are involved in this case; the third (courthouse picketing) being involved in No. 49, post at 379 U. S. 559.

Held:

1. In arresting and convicting appellant under the circumstances disclosed by this record, Louisiana deprived him of his rights of free speech and free assembly in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Edwards v. South Carolina,372 U. S. 229; Fields v. South Carolina,375 U. S. 44, followed. Pp. 379 U. S. 544-551.

2. The breach of the peace statute is unconstitutionally vague in its overly broad scope, for Louisiana has defined "breach of the peace" as "to agitate, to arouse from a state of repose, to molest, to interrupt, to hinder, to disquiet"; yet one of the very functions of free speech is to invite dispute. Terminiello v. Chicago,

Page 379 U. S. 537

337 U. S. 1; Stromberg v. California,283 U. S. 359, followed. Pp. 379 U. S. 551-552.

3. The practice in Baton Rouge of allowing local officials unfettered discretion in regulating the use of streets for peaceful parades and meetings notwithstanding the prohibitions contained in the statute against obstructing public passages abridged appellant's freedom of speech and assembly in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 379 U. S. 553-558.

(a) The Louisiana Supreme Court construed the obstructing public passages statute as applying to public assemblies which do not have the specific purpose of obstructing traffic. P. 379 U. S. 553.

(b) A State has the right to impose nondiscriminatory restrictions on travel on city streets. P. 379 U. S. 554.

(c) The rights of free speech and assembly do not mean that everyone may address a group at any public place at any time. Pp. 379 U. S. 554-555.

(d) Communication of ideas by picketing and marching on streets is not afforded the same kind of protection under the First and Fourteenth Amendments as is pure speech. P. 379 U. S. 555.

(e) Although the statute, on its face, precludes all street assemblies and parades, the Baton Rouge authorities have not so enforced it, but, in their uncontrolled discretion, have permitted parades and street meetings. Pp. 379 U. S. 555-557.

(f) The lodging of such broad discretion in public officials sanctions suppression of free expression and facilitates denial of equal protection. Pp. 379 U. S. 557-558.

244 La. 1087, 156 So.2d 448, reversed.

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