Railway Express Agency, Inc. v. New York,
336 U.S. 106 (1949)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Railway Express Agency, Inc. v. New York, 336 U.S. 106 (1949)

Railway Express Agency, Inc. v. New York

No. 51

Argued December 6, 1948

Decided January 31, 1949

336 U.S. 106


A New York City traffic regulation forbids the operation of any advertising vehicle on the streets, but excepts vehicles which have upon them business notices or advertisements of the products of the owner and which are not used merely or mainly for advertising. An express company, which sold space on the exterior sides of its trucks for advertising and which operated such trucks on the streets, was convicted and fined for violating the ordinance. Upon review here of the state court judgment, held:

1. The regulation does not violate the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 336 U. S. 108-109.

(a) The function of this Court upon such review is not to weigh evidence on the due process issue in order to determine whether the regulation is sound or appropriate, nor to pass judgment on the wisdom of the regulation. P. 336 U. S. 109.

(b) This Court can not say that the regulation has no relation to the trnffic problem of the City. P. 109.

2. The exemption of vehicles having upon them advertisements of products sold by the owner does not render the regulation a denial of the equal protection of the laws. Pp. 336 U. S. 109-110.

Page 336 U. S. 107

(a) This Court can not say that the advertising which is forbidden has less incidence on traffic than that which is exempted. P. 336 U. S. 110.

(b) The regulation is not rendered invalid by the fact that it does not extend to what may be even greater distractions affecting traffic safety, such as the spectacular displays at Times Square. P. 336 U. S. 110.

3. The regulation does not burden interstate commerce in violation of Art. I, § 8 of the Federal Constitution. P. 336 U. S. 111.

(a) Where traffic control and the use of highways are involved, and where there is no conflicting federal regulation, great leeway is allowed local authorities, even though the local regulation materially interferes with interstate commerce. P. 336 U. S. 111.

297 N.Y. 703, 77 N.E.2d 13, affirmed.

Appellant was convicted and fined for violation of a traffic regulation of the City of New York. The conviction was sustained by the Court of Special Sessions. 188 Misc. 342, 67 N.Y.S.2d 732. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 297 N Y. 703, 77 N.E.2d 13. On appeal to this Court, affirmed, p. 336 U. S. 111.

Primary Holding

A law can prohibit some harms of a certain type without prohibiting all of them under the Equal Protection Clause.


New York City prohibited advertising on vehicles but created an exception for business vehicles that were being used in their owner's usual work and were not used entirely or primarily for advertising. Railway Express Agency operated about 2,000 trucks in New York City as part of its nationwide operations. It sold space for advertising on the sides of its trucks, which was generally unrelated to its business.



  • William Orville Douglas (Author)
  • Frederick Moore Vinson
  • Stanley Forman Reed
  • Felix Frankfurter
  • Frank Murphy
  • Wiley Blount Rutledge
  • Harold Hitz Burton
  • Hugo Lafayette Black

Advertising on vehicles in the streets of New York City reasonably may distract drivers and pedestrians, undermining public safety. It is not irrational for the city to have decided that entities advertising their own products do not pose the same level of risks. Rational basis review is appropriate, and the law is reasonably related to the legitimate purpose that it is designed to support. The city is not required to prevent all potential distractions on its streets.


  • Robert Houghwout Jackson (Author)

Distinctions may be permitted under the Equal Protection Clause when there is a real difference between two groups that is connected to the purpose of the regulation. Advertising for hire is sufficiently different from advertising in one's own self-interest to justify the city's decision.

Case Commentary

Rational basis is a very deferential standard of review. Applying a higher standard might have resulted in overturning the law based on its underinclusive nature, which is often a factor under heightened scrutiny.

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