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Lovell v. City of Griffin


This decision made it clear that municipalities could not enact ordinances prohibiting the distribution of literature on public streets at all times, at all places, and under all circumstances without the city's permission. Such an ordinance was an unconstitutional censorship or prior restraint upon First Amendment freedoms. The decision also made clear that a facially unconstitutional ordinance could be ignored. The defendant was not required to apply for a permit before challenging the ordinance in court. This decision limited the scope of local governments' power to regulate the distribution of literature in public places that previously had been taken for granted.

Printed publications, including pamphlets, leaflets, and handbills, have been historic weapons in the defense of liberty. They have been used in the United States since pre-Revolutionary times to disseminate information to the public, including controversial and unpopular political, social, and religious ideas. For years legislatures, local authorities, and the courts have grappled with claims of the right to disseminate ideas in public places as against claims of an effective power in government to keep the peace and to protect other interests of a civilized community. Beginning in the 1930s, the Jehovah's Witnesses became involved in a lengthy series of Supreme Court decisions expanding the rights of religious proselytizers and other advocates to use the streets and parks to broadcast their ideas.

In 1938, a Jehovah's Witness, Alma Lovell, was charged in a Georgia state court with violating a city ordinance requiring written permission from the city manager to distribute "circulars, handbooks, advertising or literature of any kind" within the city limits. Under the ordinance, distributing literature without permission was deemed a nuisance and was punishable as an offense against the city. Lovell violated the ordinance by distributing, without prior permission, a religious pamphlet and magazine setting forth the gospel of the "Kingdom of Jehovah." Lovell had not applied for a permit because she regarded herself as sent "by Jehovah to do His work" and considered that applying for permission would be "an act of disobedience to His commandment."

At trial Lovell moved to dismiss it the charge, contending that the ordinance abridged the freedom of the press and prohibited the free exercise of her religion in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As a result, the ordinance also violated the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibited states from denying U.S. citizens the fundamental personal rights and liberties protected under the Constitution. According to the Lovell, the ordinance abridged the freedom of the press because it absolutely prohibited distribution of any kind of literature within the city limits without the city manager's permission. The Lovell also claimed that the ordinance prohibited the free exercise of religion by prohibiting her from distributing literature about her religion. Lovell was convicted and sentenced to a $50 fine or 50 days in jail if the fine was not paid. The superior court of the county refused her petition for review. The Georgia Court of Appeals overruled the defendant's objections, sustained the constitutional validity of the ordinance, and affirmed the judgment of the superior court. The Supreme Court of Georgia subsequently denied an application for certiorari, and an appeal was made to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Lovell v. City of Griffin - Significance, A Substantial Federal Question, Ordinance Is Unconstitutional Prior Restraint, `press' Includes Pamphlets