2 minute read

Cox v. Louisiana


The decision effectively struck down as "unconstitutionally vague" state and local laws. The statutes were presumably intended to prevent breaches of the peace, but actually were designed to restrict and punish unpopular speech. The landmark ruling, however, reaffirmed the state and municipal governments' responsibility to regulate the time, place, and manner in which public places may be used by individuals exercising their constitutional freedom of expression rights. Such public places include parks, sidewalks, and streets.

When persons choose to exercise their rights of expression in public forums, questions of community peace and order arise. Activities conducted in open public forums have the potential to jeopardize public order, safety, and tranquility. An essential duty of government is to preserve order and protect citizens from violence, destruction of property, and restriction of free movement in public places. The government's commitment to free speech and assembly must be balanced with the obligation to maintain order. At what point is government constitutionally justified in restraining expression in order to prevent a breach of the peace?

To deal with expression in public places the justices developed legal guidelines distinct from those they use to deliberate pure speech cases. The Court established that the right to speak and assemble peacefully in public for lawful discussion is a privilege not to be diminished by states or cities, and that time, manner, and place of public speeches can be regulated only if done precisely and in a non-discriminatory fashion. In the 1940s the Court began to define standards to determine when public speech became menacing in a way causing a breach of peace. In Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940) the Court decided that the speech in question would have had to present a clear and present danger to be considered a menace to public peace. Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942) established the doctrine of "fighting words," expressions so lewd, obscene, profane, libelous, or unsettling that they would likely incite immediate illegal behavior and should be prohibited.

The 1960s brought a sense of urgency to the issue of public order cases. The civil rights and Vietnam War protest movements produced varied forms of public expressions, such as mass demonstrations on college campuses and on public grounds, sit-ins, and protest rallies. In 1961 a group of black students marched peacefully onto the grounds of the South Carolina State Capital to protest discriminatory actions against "negroes." The resulting case, Edwards v. South Carolina (1963), built on the standards set in the 1940s by ruling that the threat of violence or actual violence is required before suppression of speech in a public forum is warranted.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Cox v. Louisiana - Significance, Protests In Baton Rouge, No Breach Of Peace, Public Passages Not Obstructed, Picketing Before A Courthouse