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Thornhill v. Alabama

Court Upholds Labor Pickets As Exercise Of Freedom Of Speech

Justice Murphy, who wrote the opinion of the Court, knew a great deal about strikes. Before coming to sit on the high bench, he had served as governor of Michigan, where his refusal to call in troops to deal with a sit-down strike by automotive workers cost him re-election. In Thornhill, he left little doubt about his support for organized labor:

In the circumstances of our times the dissemination of information concerning the facts of a labor dispute must be regarded as within that area of free discussion that is guaranteed by the Constitution . . . Labor relations are not matters of mere local or private concern. Free discussion concerning the conditions in industry and the causes of labor disputes appears to us indispensable to the effective and intelligent use of the processes of popular government to shape the destiny of modern industrial society.

For Murphy and seven other members of the Court, picketing was not only an exercise of freedom of expression, it also performed an educational function. The public's right to know about the state of industrial relations was as important as the picketers' right to express their dissatisfaction with their employers. The Alabama statute, which outlawed all picketing, was simply too broad to be constitutional. The Court struck it down and reversed Thornhill's conviction.

All the same, Thornhill did not endorse all aspects of picketing. States remained free to impose conditions on labor demonstrations in order to preserve the peace and privacy of its citizens. In later years, the Court would in fact cite Thornhill as authority for limiting labor activism that threatened economic production. In the 1940s, the Court came to emphasize the public interest in granting organized labor constitutional protections, rather than the workers' own fundamental rights. The logical result of this reasoning came into focus with American Communications Association v. Douds (1950), in which the Court used the NLRA's mission of protecting the free flow of commerce to uphold legislation intended to rid labor of communist sympathizers.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Thornhill v. Alabama - Significance, Court Upholds Labor Pickets As Exercise Of Freedom Of Speech, Related Cases