THORNHILL V. ALABAMA, 310 U. S. 88 (1940)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Thornhill v. Alabama, 310 U.S. 88 (1940)

Thornhill v. Alabama

No. 514

Argued February 29, 1940

Decided April 22, 1940

310 U.S. 88


A statute of Alabama makes it unlawful for any person, "without a just cause or legal excuse," to go near to or "loiter" about any place of lawful business, for the purpose of, or with the intention of, influencing or inducing other persons not to buy from, deal with, or be employed at such place of business; or to "picket" a place of lawful business for the purpose of impeding, interfering with, or injuring such business. As construed by the courts of the State, the statute forbids the publicizing of facts concerning a labor dispute, whether by printed sign, by pamphlet, by word of mouth, or otherwise, in the vicinity of the business involved, and this without regard to the number of persons engaged in such activity, the peaceful character of their conduct, the nature of the dispute, or the accuracy or restraint of the language used in imparting the information. Upon a complaint substantially in the words of the statute, and upon evidence of activities related to picketing of a place of business in connection with a labor dispute, petitioner was convicted of "loitering and picketing as charged in the complaint." The statute was challenged as violative of freedom of speech and of the press.


1. Freedom of speech and of the press, secured by the First Amendment against abridgment by the United States, is secured to all persons by the Fourteenth Amendment against abridgment by the States. P. 310 U. S. 95.

2. When abridgment of the effective exercise of the rights of freedom of speech and of the press is claimed, it is incumbent on the courts to "weigh the circumstances" and "appraise the substantiality of the reasons advanced" in support of the challenged regulations. P. 310 U. S. 96.

3. The statute must be judged upon its face. P. 310 U. S. 96.

(a) The charges were framed in the words of the statute, and the finding was general; it is not necessary to consider whether the evidence would have supported a conviction based upon different and more precise charges. P. 310 U. S. 96.

(b) The very existence of a penal statute such as that here, which does not aim specifically at evils within the allowable area of state control, but sweeps within its ambit other activities that, in ordinary circumstances, constitute an exercise of freedom of

Page 310 U. S. 89

speech or of the press, results in a continuous and pervasive restraint of all freedom of discussion that might reasonably be regarded as within its purview. One convicted under such a statute does not have to sustain the burden of showing that the State could not constitutionally have written a different and specific statute covering the particular activities in which he is shown to have been engaged. P. 310 U. S. 97.

(c) Where regulations of the liberty of free discussion are concerned, there are special reasons for observing the rule that it is the statute, and not the accusation or the evidence under it, which prescribes the limits of permissible conduct and warns against transgression. P. 310 U. S. 98.

4. The statute is invalid on its face. P. 310 U. S. 101.

(a) Freedom of speech and of the press embraces, at the least, the liberty to discuss publicly and truthfully all matters of public concern without previous restraint or fear of subsequent punishment. P. 310 U. S. 101.

(b) The dissemination of information concerning the facts of a labor dispute must be regarded as within that area of free discussion which is guaranteed by the Constitution. P. 310 U. S. 102.

(c) Although the rights of employers and employees are subject to modification or qualification in the public interest, it does not follow that the State, in dealing with the evils arising from industrial disputes, may impair the effective exercise of the right to discuss freely industrial relations which are matters of public concern. P. 310 U. S. 103.

(d) While the State may take adequate steps to preserve the peace and to protect the privacy, the lives, and the property of its people, yet no clear and present danger of destruction of life or property, or invasion of the right of privacy, can be thought to be inherent in the activities of every person who approaches the premises of an employer and publicizes the facts of a labor dispute. P. 310 U. S. 105.

(e) There is not here involved any question of picketing, en masse or otherwise conducted, which might occasion such imminent and aggravated danger to the community interests as to justify a statute narrowly drawn to cover the precise situation out of which the danger arises. P. 310 U. S. 105.

(f) That it applies only when the proscribed activities are engaged in at the scene of a labor dispute cannot justify the statute. P. 310 U. S. 106.

28 Ala.App. 527; 189 So. 913, reversed.

Page 310 U. S. 90

CERTIORARI, 308 U.S. 547, to review the affirmance of a conviction under a penal statute of Alabama. The state Supreme Court denied a petition for certiorari.

Page 310 U. S. 91

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