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Lamont v. Postmaster General of the United States

Significance

The Court's decision reiterated the Court's previous decisions that the government has no power to place even minor restrictions on the right of free speech under the First Amendment to the Constitution. It also reiterated the central idea behind the First Amendment, that the freedom to speak one's mind protects the right to speak on topics which are politically unpopular.

Following the end of World War II, and fueled in large part by the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, a great fear arose in the United States of people associated with the Communist party or generally holding communist beliefs. This era was marked by blacklisting of members of the media and entertainment industries with ties to communists, Congressional investigation of communists and non-communists alike, and a general distrust of anyone sympathizing with communists or communist beliefs. This period was also marked by government attempts in the 1950s and 1960s to monitor U.S. citizens suspected of being communists.

Part of this paranoia was reflected in the Postal Service Act of 1962. Section 305 of this act required the postal service to detain any unsealed mail, such as magazines and pamphlets but not including sealed letters, designated as "communist political propaganda" which was sent into the United States from a foreign country. The post office was then required to notify the addressee that the mail had been received and would be delivered only at the addressee's request.

In 1963, a copy of a pamphlet called "Peking Review #12" was sent to Dr. Corliss Lamont, who published and distributed pamphlets in the United States. Pursuant to the Postal Service Act, the post office detained the pamphlet and sent Lamont a card notifying him that the material had been detained. Instead of sending to the post office a reply card indicating that he wished to receive the material, Lamont filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, claiming that the statute infringed on his right to free speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A three-judge panel of the district court dismissed the complaint, concluding that Lamont's claim was moot because the post office construed his filing of the lawsuit as an indication that he wished to receive the pamphlet and delivered it to him. Meanwhile, Leif Helberg instituted a similar challenge to the law in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. That court, however, found that the statute was unconstitutional.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Lamont v. Postmaster General of the United States - Significance, Court Sets Broad Free Speech Protections, Impact, Related Cases, Further Readings