Carlson v. California
Decided on Apr. 22, 1940; 310 US 106


Labor union member challenges a local ordinance prohibiting picketing at the site of a labor dispute

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

A. Issues Discussed:  Civil Rights (federal), 14th Amendment, free speech

B. Legal Question Presented:

Does a regulation making it unlawful for any person to carry or display any sign, banner, or badge for purposes of picketing in connection with a labor dispute violate the due process clause of the 14th Amendment?  

II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

An ordinance of Shasta County, California, declared it unlawful for any person to carry or display any sign, banner, or badge in the vicinity of any place of business for the purpose of inducing people to refrain from purchasing merchandise or working for the contested establishment. The ordinance also prohibited any person from loitering or picketing in the vicinity of any place of business.

Appellant Carlson and other union members picketed with signs at the site of a labor dispute at a highway construction project.  There was no interference with traffic to or from the project, and the activities were peaceful and orderly. County officers arrested appellant, and he was convicted with violating the “anti-picketing law” and fined $25.  The conviction was upheld by the Shasta County Superior Court.

Appellant appealed to US Supreme Court asserting that the county ordinance violated his right to free speech in violation of the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.  The State of California, respondent, asserted that the ordinance was justified in the interest of public peace. The high court granted certiorari to review the case.

B. Counsel of Record:

ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)

Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)

Lee Pressman argued the cause for appellant.  With him on the brief were Joseph Kovner and Anthony Wayne Smith. 
Laurence W. Carr, pro hac vice by special leave of Court, argued the cause for appellee.
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable 
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Osmond K. Fraenkel filed a brief on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, as amicus curiae urging reversal. No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of appellee.
IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

“Our decision in Thornhill v. Alabama, goes far toward settling the issues presented here. Under that decision, Section 2 of the ordinance in question is to be judged upon its face...

The terms ‘loiter’ and ’picket’ are not defined either in the ordinance or in authoritative State decisions.  Therefore, they must be judged as covering all the activities embraced by the prohibition against the carrying of signs in the vicinity of a labor dispute for the purpose mentioned.  The ordinance does not proscribe the carrying of signs in other places or for the purpose of inducing or attempting to induce others to adopt courses of action not related to labor disputes. It contains no exceptions with respect to the truthfulness and restraint of the information conveyed or the number of persons engaged in the activity... [T]he ordinance does not regulate all carrying of signs, but, on the contrary, proscribes the carrying of signs only if by persons directly interested who approach the vicinity of a labor dispute to convey information about the dispute.

The sweeping and inexact terms of the ordinance disclose the threat to freedom of speech inherent in its existence. It cannot be thought to differ in any material respect from the statute held void in Thornhill's case. The carrying of signs and banners… is a natural and appropriate means of conveying information on matters of public concern. For the reasons set forth in our opinion in Thornhill v. Alabama, publicizing the facts of a labor dispute in a peaceful way through appropriate means, whether by pamphlet, by word of mouth or by banner, must now be regarded as within that liberty of communication which is secured to every person by the Fourteenth Amendment against abridgment by a state.

The power and duty of the State to take adequate steps to preserve the peace and protect the privacy, the lives, and the property of its residents cannot be doubted. But the ordinance in question here abridges liberty of discussion under circumstances presenting no clear and present danger of substantive evils within the allowable area of State control. Reversed."
Justice Vote: 8 Pro vs. 1 Con

  • Murphy, F.  Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Stone, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Roberts, O. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Black, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Reed, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Frankfurter, F. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Hughes, C. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • McReynolds, J. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal:  the US Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the Superior Court of the State of California in an 8-1 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.