Stromberg v. People of State of California
Decided May 18, 1931; 283 US 359


I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
I. ISSUES:

A. Issues Discussed: Freedom of association

B. Legal Question Presented:

Is anyone of the three clauses of Section 403 or the Penal Code of California, as construed by the state court, repugnant upon its face to the Federal Constitution so that it could not constitute a lawful foundation for a criminal prosecution?

II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

"[T]he appellant... was one of the supervisors of a summer camp for children... She was a member of the Young Communist League, an international organization affiliated with the Communist Party. The charge against her concerned a daily ceremony at the camp, in which the appellant supervised and directed the children in raising a red flag, 'a camp-made reproduction of the flag of Soviet Russia, which was also the flag of the Communist Party in the United States."

Appellant was convicted in the superior court per the terms of Section 403a of the Penal Code of the State of California for "willfully, unlawfully and feloniously displaying a red flag and banner in a public place and in a meeting place as a sign, symbol and emblem of opposition to organized government and as an invitation and stimulus to anarchistic action and as an aid to propaganda that is and was of a seditious character." Appellant argued "that, under the Fourteenth Amendment, the statute was invalid as being 'an unwarranted limitation on the right of free speech.'"

The District Court affirmed the superior court's judgment and on appeal the US Supreme Court reversed the District Court's judgment.

B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Mr. John Beardsley, of Los Angeles, CA. Mr. John D. Richer, of Los Angeles, CA.
IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

Section 403a states in part that anyone who displays a red flag, banner or badge in any public place "as a sign, symbol or emblem of opposition to organized government or as an invitation or stimulus to anarchistic action or as an aid to propaganda that is of a seditious character is guilty of a felony."

The state court held that "[t]he constitutionality of the phrase of this section, 'of opposition to organized government,' is questionable... The section is complete without it... Accordingly, disregarding the first clause of the statute, and upholding the other clauses, the conviction of the appellant was sustained. We are unable to agree with this disposition of the case. The verdict against the appellant... did not specify the ground upon which it rested... [I]t is impossible to say under which clause of the statute the conviction was obtained...

The maintenance of the opportunity for free political discussion to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people and that changes may be obtained by lawful means, [is] an opportunity essential to the security of the Republic [and] a fundamental principle of our constitutional system. A statute which upon its face, is so vague and indefinite as to permit the punishment of the fair use of this opportunity is repugnant to the guaranty of liberty contained in the Fourteenth Amendment."

The US Supreme Court reversed the District Court's judgment.

Justice Vote: 7 Pro vs. 2 Con

  • Hughes, C. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Holmes, O. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Van Devanter, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brandeis, L. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Sutherland, G. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stone, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Roberts, O. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • McReynolds, J. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Butler, P. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

    The ACLU, as counsel of record, urged reversal of the District Court's Judgment; the US Supreme Court reversed the lower court's decision in a 7-2 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.