Beauharnais v. Illinois
343 U.S. 250 (1952)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Beauharnais v. Illinois, 343 U.S. 250 (1952)

Beauharnais v. Illinois

No. 118

Argued November 28, 1951

Decided April 28, 1952

343 U.S. 250


Over his claim that the statute violated the liberty of speech and of the press guaranteed as against the States by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and was void for vagueness, petitioner was convicted in a state court for distributing on the streets of Chicago anti-Negro leaflets in violation of Ill.Rev.Stat., 1949, c. 38, § 471, which makes it a crime to exhibit in any public place any publication which "portrays depravity, criminality, unchastity, or lack of virtue of a class of citizens, of any race, color, creed or religion" which "exposes the citizens of any race, color, creed or religion to contempt, derision, or obloquy."


1. As construed and applied in this case, the statute does not violate the liberty of speech and of the press guaranteed as against the States by ihe Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 343 U. S. 251-264.

2. As construed and applied in this case, the statute is not void for vagueness. Winters v. New York, 333 U. S. 507; Stromberg v. California, 283 U. S. 359; Thornhill v. Alabama, 310 U. S. 88; and Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U. S. 1, distinguished. P. 343 U. S. 264.

3. Since petitioner did not, by appropriate steps in the trial court, seek to justify his utterance as "fair comment" or as privileged as a means for redressing grievances, those hypothetical defenses cannot be considered by this Court. Pp. 343 U. S. 264-265.

4. Since the Illinois Supreme Court construed this statute as a form of criminal libel law, and truth of the utterance is not a defense to a charge of criminal libel under Illinois law unless the publication is also made "with good motives and for justifiable ends," petitioner was not denied due process by the trial court's rejection of a proffer of proof which did not satisfy this requirement. Pp. 343 U. S. 253-254, 343 U. S. 265-266.

5. Since libelous utterances are not within the area of constitutionally protected speech, it is not necessary for this Court to consider the issues raised by the denial of petitioner's request that the jury be instructed that, in order to convict, they must find that the publication complained of was likely to produce a "clear and present danger" of a substantial evil. Pp. 343 U. S. 253, 343 U. S. 266.

408 Ill. 512, 97 N.E.2d 343, affirmed.

Page 343 U. S. 251

The Supreme Court of Illinois sustained petitioner's conviction of a violation of Ill.Rev.Stat., 1949, c. 38 § 471, over his objection that the statute was invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment. 408 Ill. 512, 97 N.E.2d 343. This Court granted certiorari. 342 U.S. 809. Affirmed, p. 343 U. S. 267.

Primary Holding
Acts of criminal libel that target specific groups and are openly distributed are not protected by due process.
Beauharnais petitioned Chicago government officials to halt the encroachment, harassment, and invasion of white people and call whites to unite against the violence perpetrated by African-Americans. He circulated leaflets containing his petition and was convicted under a state law that prohibited libel against any class of citizens of a certain race, color, creed, or religion if it might cause unrest or a breach of the peace.



  • Felix Frankfurter (Author)
  • Frederick Moore Vinson
  • Harold Hitz Burton
  • Tom C. Clark
  • Sherman Minton

The law is sufficiently clearly defined, and it is based on long-standing history and practice. Many states have similar laws that combat racial violence, and Illinois is a state that has suffered from this trend in the past. The petition consisted of extreme racial and religious propaganda that was distributed to the public and was intended to have a strong emotional effect, so it properly fell within the ambit of the law.


  • Hugo Lafayette Black (Author)
  • William Orville Douglas

Individuals rather than the state should determine the scope of issues that are appropriate for public discussion. The government should not be permitted to restrict the freedom of expression in a country that values self-government so deeply.


  • Stanley Forman Reed (Author)
  • William Orville Douglas


  • William Orville Douglas (Author)


  • Robert Houghwout Jackson (Author)

Case Commentary

The First Amendment does not protect the speech because the law under which it was punished was restricted to conduct related to the peace and well-being of the state. The particularly savage nature of the messages placed them within the legitimate scope of this law.

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