Winters v. People of State of New York
Decided on Mar. 29, 1948, 333 US 507


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

A. Issues Discussed: Freedom of expression

B. Legal Question Presented:

Is New York's Penal statute, which prohibits the distribution and sale of printed materials that are "made up of criminal news, police reports, or accounts of criminal deeds, or pictures, or stories of deeds of bloodshed, lust or crime," so vague and indefinite that it violates the right of free speech and press?
II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

Appellant is a "New York City bookdealer, convicted... of a misdemeanor for having in his possession with intent to sell certain magazines charged to violate subsection 2 of 1141 of the New York Penal Law," which prohibits the sale and/or distribution of "any book, pamphlet, magazine, newspaper or other printed paper devoted to the publication, and principally made up of criminal news, police reports, or accounts of criminal deeds, or pictures, or stories of deeds of bloodshed, lust or crime."

The Appellant challenged the validity of the statute claiming that it "violates the right of free speech and press because it is vague and indefinite."

The court of special Sessions fo the City of New York sustained Appellant's conviction. On appeal the US Supreme Court reversed.

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. Arthur N. Seiff, of New York City, for appellant. Mr. Whitman Knapp, of New York City, for appellee.
IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

"The subsection of the New York Penal Law, as now interpreted by the Court of Appeals prohibits distribution of a magazine principally made up of criminal news or stories of deeds of bloodshed, or lust, so massed as to become vehicles for inciting violent and depraved crimes against the person. But even considering the gloss put upon the literal meaning by the Court of Appeals' restriction of the statute... we find the specification of publications, prohibited from distribution, too uncertain and indefinite to justify the conviction of this petitioner...

[F]air use of collections of pictures and stories would be [precluded] because of the utter impossibility of the actor or the trier to know where this new standard of guilt would draw the line between the allowable and the forbidden publications... [I]t does not seem to us that an honest distributor of publications could know when he might be held to have ignored such a prohibition...

Where a statute is so vague as to make criminal an innocent act, a conviction under it cannot be sustained." The US Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Special Sessions of the City of New York.

Justice Vote: 6 Pro vs. 3 Con
  • Reed, S. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Vinson, F. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Murphy, F. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Black, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rutledge, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Frankfurter, F. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Jackson, R. Con (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • Burton, H. Con (Joined dissenting opinion)
  • V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

    The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged reversal of the judgment of the Court of Special Sessions of the City of New York; the Supreme Court reversed in a 6-3 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win .