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Gompers v. Buck's Stove & Range Company

The Court's Analysis

Writing the opinion for the majority, Justice Lamar first addressed the constitutional issue posed by the petitioners, stating that the terms of the injunction did not restrain speech or press, as they had argued. Instead, he reasoned, the real issue posed was whether a lower court in equity had the power to impose an injunction on the continuance of a boycott, which, "by words and signals, printed or spoken, caused or threatened irreparable damage." He referred to several federal laws (including the Sherman Anti-Trust Act) and prior Supreme Court cases which clearly upheld courts' powers to enjoin a boycott where interstate commerce was restrained or property was irreparably damaged. He again reasoned that if the restraint of trade could be enjoined, but the means through which the restraint was accomplished could not be enjoined, it would render all the laws "impotent."

Lamar then briefly discussed the difference between an individual's right of speech and association versus the rights of a "multitude of members" who have acquired vast power by uniting, such as in a labor organization. In those circumstances, Lamar explained, " . . . it is the duty of government to protect the one against the many, as well as the many against the one." Accordingly, a court's protective and restraining powers extended, "to every device whereby property is irreparably damaged or commerce is illegally restrained."

The opinion further distinguished between an individual's words or signals, and those of an unlawful conspiracy among persons to act together against a business. Such a conspiracy, Lamar noted, " . . . gives the words `Unfair,' `We Don't Patronize,' or similar expressions, a force not inhering in the words themselves, and therefore exceeding any possible right of speech which a single individual might have. Under such circumstances they become what have been called `verbal acts,' and as much subject to injunction as the use of any other force whereby property is unlawfully damaged." Lamar then stated that when the facts in a case warranted it, a court with proper jurisdiction over the parties and the subject matter indeed had the power to grant an injunction.

The remainder of the opinion focused on the appropriateness of the remedy. After a lengthy discussion of the differences between civil and criminal contempt, Lamar concluded that, not only did the lower courts' determination (that this case was one of criminal contempt) require reversal, but also that Buck's was not entitled to "any compensation or relief" because the offending contempt was against the court, not Buck's. Therefore, the contempt proceedings instituted by Buck's were ordered dismissed, but the opinion left open the right of the original trial court to institute its own contempt proceedings against Gompers, et al. for any contempt committed against it.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Gompers v. Buck's Stove Range Company - Significance, Historical Backdrop, Testing The Waters, The Court's Analysis, Impact, Unions