Pennekamp v. Florida,
328 U.S. 331 (1946)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Pennekamp v. Florida, 328 U.S. 331 (1946)

Pennekamp v. Florida

No. 473

Argued February 8, 1946

Decided June 3, 1946

328 U.S. 331


Petitioners, the publisher and the associate editor of a newspaper, were responsible for the publication of two editorials and a cartoon criticizing certain actions previously taken by a Florida trial court of general jurisdiction in certain non-jury proceedings as being too favorable to criminals and gambling establishments. Two of the cases involved had been dismissed. In the third, a rape case, an indictment had been quashed for technical defects, but a new indictment had been obtained and trial was pending. Petitioners were cited for contempt, the citation charging, inter alia, that the publications reflected upon and impugned the integrity of the court, tended to create a distrust for the court, willfully withheld and suppressed the truth, and tended to obstruct the fair and impartial administration of justice in pending cases. In their answer, petitioners denied any intent to interfere with fair and impartial justice and claimed, inter alia, that it was their intent to condemn and criticize the system of pleading and practice created by the laws of Florida, that the publications were legitimate criticism and comment within the federal guaranties of a free press, and that they created no clear and present danger to the administration of justice. The court found the facts recited and the charges made in the citation to be true and well founded, adjudged petitioners guilty of contempt, and fined them. This judgment was sustained by the Supreme Court of Florida as being in accordance with Florida law.


1. On this record, the danger to fair judicial administration has not the clearness and immediacy necessary to close the door of permissible public comment, and the judgment is reversed as violative of petitioners' right of free expression in the press under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Bridge v. California, 314 U. S. 252. Pp. 328 U. S. 334, 328 U. S. 346-350.

2. This Court has final authority to determine the meaning and application of those words of the Constitution which require interpretation to resolve judicial issues. P. 328 U. S. 335.

3. In cases of this type, it must examine for itself the statements in issue and the circumstances under which they were made to see

Page 328 U. S. 332

whether or not they carry a threat of clear and present danger to the impartiality and good order of the courts or whether they are of a character protected by the principles of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 328 U. S. 335, 328 U. S. 336, 328 U. S. 346.

4. When the highest court of a State has reached a determination upon such an issue, this Court gives most respectful attention to its reasoning and conclusion; but the state court's authority is not final. P. 328 U. S. 335.

5. This Court agrees with the Supreme Court of Florida that the rape case was pending at the time of the publication. P. 328 U. S. 344.

6. This Court may accept the conclusion of the Florida courts upon intent and motive as a determination of fact; but it is for this Court to determine federal constitutional rights in the setting of the facts. P. 328 U. S. 345.

7. Discussion that follows the termination of a case may be inadequate to emphasize the danger to public welfare of supposedly wrongful judicial conduct, but it does not follow that public comment of every character upon pending trials or legal proceedings may be as free as similar comment after complete disposal of the litigation. P. 328 U. S. 346.

8. In borderline cases where it is difficult to say upon which side the alleged offense falls, the specific freedom of public comment should weigh heavily against a possible tendency to influence pending cases. Freedom of discussion should be given the widest possible range compatible with the essential requirement of the fair and orderly administration of justice. P. 328 U. S. 347.

9. Since the publications concerned the attitude of the judges toward those charged with crime, not comments on evidence or rulings during a jury trial, their effect on juries that might eventually try the alleged offenders is too remote to be considered a clear and present danger to justice. P. 328 U. S. 348.

10. This criticism of the judge's inclinations or actions in pending non-jury proceedings could not directly affect the administration of justice, although the cases were still pending on other points or might be revived by rehearings. P. 328 U. S. 348.

11. That a judge might be influenced by a desire to placate the accusing newspaper to retain public esteem and secure reelection at the cost of unfair rulings against an accused is too remote a possibility to be considered a clear and present danger to justice. P. 328 U. S. 349.

156 Fla. 227, 22 So.2d 875, reversed.

Page 328 U. S. 333

Petitioners were adjudged guilty of contempt of a state court. The Supreme Court of Florida affirmed. 156 Fla. 227, 22 So.2d 875. This Court granted certiorari. 326 U.S. 709. Reversed, p. 328 U. S. 350.

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