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Freedom of Assembly

Political Expression

Government abridgments draw close scrutiny from the courts. While the First Amendment's definition of "peaceable" assembly is open to wide interpretation, twentieth century courts have refused to allow it to be used as a blanket excuse for any government control. The modern trend has its roots in De Jonge v. Oregon (1937), one of the earliest cases to emphasize the importance of assembly rights. Dirk De Jonge, a Communist party member, had organized a meeting in Portland, Oregon, to protest police violence against striking workers. Though the meeting was peaceful, the state convicted him for selling Communist pamphlets in violation of a statute prohibiting "any unlawful acts or methods as a means of accomplishing or effecting industrial or political change or revolution." In overturning the conviction, the Supreme Court declared that "peaceable assembly for lawful discussion cannot be made a crime." Moreover, the right of assembly was "equally fundamental" to that of freedom of speech and the press. Three years later, in another milestone, Thornhill v. Alabama (1940), the Court gave protection to union picketing. Overturning a state law that prohibited picketing, the 8-1 decision observed that labor demonstrations were "indispensable to the effective and intelligent use of the process of popular government to shape the destiny of modern industrial society."

In recent decades, political expression has received the greatest protection, although this change came slowly. The many public demonstrations of the Civil Rights movement, for example, produced violent reactions from citizens opposed to voting rights and integration for African Americans, and courts in southern states often convicted demonstrators for breaching the peace. In Edwards v. South Carolina (1963), the Supreme Court reversed the convictions of almost 200 black students who protested discrimination by marching in orderly fashion on the state capitol grounds. The Edwards decision made it clear that states could not punish "the peaceful expression of unpopular views." Controversial decisions would follow, occasionally outraging society while reminding it that even the least popular groups could assemble legally. Such a decision was Smith v. Collin (1978), which ordered the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Illinois, to permit the American Nazi Party to march in neighborhoods inhabited by 70,000 Jewish residents, many of whom were Holocaust survivors. Skokie's local ordinances, which controlled the content of speech and the clothing of marchers, were held unconstitutional. "[I]f these civil rights are to remain vital for all," the federal court held, "they must protect not only those society deems acceptable, but also those whose ideas it quite justifiably rejects and despises."

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesFreedom of Assembly - Fundamental Rights, Political Expression, Freedom Of Association, Further Readings