DOMBROWSKI V. PFISTER, 380 U. S. 479 (1965)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Dombrowski v. Pfister, 380 U.S. 479 (1965)

Dombrowski v. Pfister

No. 52

Argued January 25, 1965

Decided April 26, 1965

380 U.S. 479


Appellants, a civil rights organization and its executive director, brought suit in Federal District Court, in which other individuals later joined, for injunctive and declaratory relief to restrain appellees from prosecuting or threatening to prosecute them under Louisiana's Subversive Activities and Communist Control Law and Communist Propaganda Control Law, which they alleged violated their rights of free expression under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Appellants contended that the statutes were excessively broad and susceptible of application in violation of those rights, and were being used by appellees in bad faith, not to secure valid convictions, but to deter appellants' civil rights efforts. Appellants alleged and offered to prove the arrest of the individual appellants under the statutes, the raiding of their offices and illegal seizure of their records, with continued threats of prosecution after invalidation by a state court of the arrests and seizure of evidence preceding this action. A three-judge District Court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, also holding that abstention was appropriate pending a possible by the state courts which would avoid unnecessary constitutional adjudication. Thereafter, appellants alleged, the individual appellants were indicted under the Subversive Activities and Communist Control Law. They also claimed that there was no prospect of final state adjudications either under those indictments or under threatened additional prosecutions.


1. The mere possibility of erroneous initial application of constitutional standards by a state court will not ordinarily constitute irreparable injury warranting federal interference with a good faith prosecution and the adjudication during its course of constitutional defenses. Pp. 380 U. S. 484-485.

Page 380 U. S. 480

2. But equitable relief will be granted to prevent a substantial loss or impairment of freedoms of expression resulting from prosecution under an excessively broad statute regulating expression. Pp. 380 U. S. 485-489.

(a) Defense of a criminal prosecution will not generally assure ample vindication of First Amendment rights. Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U. S. 360, followed. Pp. 380 U. S. 485-486.

(b) A chilling effect upon First Amendment rights might result from such prosecution regardless of its prospects of success or failure, as is indicated by appellants' representations of the actions taken under the statutes. Pp. 380 U. S. 487-489.

3. The abstention doctrine is inappropriate where a statute is justifiably attacked on its face, or as applied for the purpose of discouraging protected activities. Pp. 380 U. S. 489-491.

(a) The state court's ultimate interpretation of a statute would be irrelevant to meet the claim that it was being applied to discourage civil rights activities. P. 380 U. S. 490.

(b) Abstention is inappropriate where a statute regulating speech is properly attacked on its face as being unconstitutionally vague. Pp. 380 U. S. 490-491.

(c) Appellants are entitled to an injunction where, as here, no readily apparent construction is available to bring the statute within constitutional confines in a single prosecution, and it is not alleged that their conduct would fall within any conceivable narrowing construction. P. 380 U. S. 491.

(d) The State must assume the burden of securing a permissible narrow construction of the statute in a noncriminal proceeding before it may seek modification of the injunction to permit future prosecutions thereunder. P. 380 U. S. 491.

4. The statutory definition of "a subversive organization" in § 359(5) of the Louisiana Subversive Activities and Communist Control Law, incorporated in the offense created by § 364(4), under which two of the individual appellants were indicted, results in an overly broad regulation of speech, invalid for the same reasons as held in Baggett v. Bullitt, supra, which involved a substantially similar definition. Pp. 380 U. S. 493-494.

5. Section 364(7), creating an offense for failure to register as a member of a "Communist Front Organization," under which each of the individual defendants was indicted, is, on its face, invalid because of its constitutionally impermissible presumption of such status if the organization had been cited as a Communist front

Page 380 U. S. 481

by designated federal instrumentalities, there being no requirement in the statute of compliance in the process of such citation with procedural safeguards as demanded by Anti-Facist Committee v. McGrath, 341 U. S. 123. Pp. 380 U. S. 494-496.

6. The District Court shall enjoin prosecution of the pending indictments against the individual appellants, order immediate return of documents seized, and prohibit further enforcement of the sections of the Subversive Activities and Communist Control Law here found void on their face. Without abstention, it shall decide what relief appellants may be entitled to on the basis of their attacks on other sections of that statute, their attacks on the Communist Propaganda Control Law, and the remaining issues raised in the complaint. Pp. 380 U. S. 497-498.

27 F. Supp. 556, reversed and remanded.

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