Schneider v. State
308 U.S. 147 (1939)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Schneider v. State, 308 U.S. 147 (1939)

Schneider v. State

No. 11

Argued October 13, 16, 1939

Decided November 22, 1939*

308 U.S. 147

Syllabus

1. The freedom of speech and of the press secured by the First Amendment against abridgment by the United States is similarly secured to all persons by the Fourteenth Amendment against abridgment by a State. P. 308 U. S. 160.

2. It is a duty of municipal authorities, as trustees for the public, to keep the streets open and available for movement of people and property -- the primary purpose to which the streets are dedicated, and, to this end, the conduct of those who use them may be regulated; but such regulation must not abridge the constitutional liberty of those who are rightfully upon the streets to impart information through speech or the distribution of literature. Id.

3. The guaranty of freedom of speech and of the press does not deprive a municipality of power to enact regulations against standing

Page 308 U. S. 148

in the middle of a crowded street and obstructing traffic, or interfering with the passage of pedestrians in order to force their acceptance of tendered leaflets, or against throwing literature broadcast in the streets, since such conduct bears no necessary relationship to the freedom to speak, write, print or distribute information or opinion. P. 308 U. S. 160.

4. The purpose to keep the streets clean and neat is insufficient to justify an ordinance which prohibits a person rightfully on a public street from handing literature to one willing to receive it. Any burden imposed upon the city authorities in cleaning and caring for the streets as an indirect consequence of such distribution results from the constitutional protection of the freedom of speech and press. P. 308 U. S. 162.

There are obvious methods of preventing littering of the streets -- e.g., the punishment of those who actually throw papers on the streets.

5. The circumstance that, in the actual enforcement of an ordinance forbidding all distribution of literature in the streets, the distributor is arrested only if those who receive the literature throw it on the streets does not render the ordinance valid. P. 308 U. S. 163.

6. Ordinances forbidding distribution of printed matter are not made valid by limiting their operation to streets and alleys, and leaving other public places free. P. 308 U. S. 163.

7. A municipal ordinance prohibiting solicitation, and distribution of circulars, by canvassing from house to house, unless licensed by the police after an inquiry and decision amounting to censorship, held void as applied to one who delivered literature and solicited contributions from house to house in the name of religion. P. 308 U. S. 163.

121 N.J.L. 542, 3 A.2d 609; 33 Cal.App.2d 747, 85 P.2d 231; 230 Wis. 131, 283 N.W. 301; 18 N.E.2d (Mass.) 166, reversed.

Two of these four cases came up by appeal, and two by certiorari, 306 U.S. 628, 629, to review decision of state courts which upheld convictions under municipal ordinances forbidding or regulating distribution of literature in the streets or other public places. In three of the cases, the acts charged took place in the streets. The other was a case of circulars distributed by house to house visitations.

Page 308 U. S. 153

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Primary Holding

An anti-littering law may not infringe the First Amendment rights of people trying to circulate information or opinions.

Facts

Schneider, a member of Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, was certified by that group as one of Jehovah's Witnesses. This meant that he was tasked with calling from house to house at all hours to provide testimony. He was charged with violating a Town of Irvington ordinance that prohibited canvassing without a permit. On appeal, his case was consolidated with two other constitutional challenges to ordinances that prohibited the distribution and circulation of handbills.

Opinions

Majority

  • Owen Josephus Roberts (Author)
  • Charles Evans Hughes
  • James Clark McReynolds
  • Pierce Butler
  • Harlan Fiske Stone
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • Stanley Forman Reed
  • Felix Frankfurter
  • William Orville Douglas

Keeping the streets clean and attractive in appearance does not justify infringing on constitutional rights such as those protected by the First Amendment. People who are lawfully on a public street must have the right to distribute literature to others who are willing to receive it.

Case Commentary

Even if a modest standard of review were applied, the government would not be able to meet it because there is no legitimate purpose imaginable in preventing people from peacefully distributing information. The Court was not persuaded that facilitating the flow of pedestrians on sidewalks and traffic in streets merited a sweeping ban on this activity, so the case can be viewed as an early example of a statute struck down as overly broad.

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