In Talley v. California, 362 U.S. 60 (1960), the Supreme Court ruled that a Los Angeles ordinance requiring that all handbills identify the person who published or distributed them was unconstitutionally overbroad and in violation of the First Amendment freedoms of speech and press.

Talley prosecuted for distributing anonymous pamphlets

Manuel Talley faced prosecution for distributing handbills urging the boycott of certain businesses that refused to hire minorities. A California municipal court ruled that Talley violated the statute prohibiting anonymous distribution of handbills and fined him $10. A California appellate court affirmed his conviction and rejected his First Amendment arguments. Talley then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Court found the ordinance overbroad

Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo L. Black observed that the ordinance did not limit itself to leaflets that were obscene or advocated violence but banned all anonymous handbills “under all circumstances,” making it overbroad. Black added that anonymous speech had “played an important role in the progress of mankind.” He cited The Federalist Papers, which Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote in defense of the Constitution.

In a concurring opinion, Justice John Marshall Harlan II observed that the government’s interest in preventing “fraud, deceit, false advertising, negligent use of words, obscenity, and libel” was not compelling, nor was the law limited to identifying the authors and distributors of such publications.

Clark did not think First Amendment protections applied to anonymous speech

In his dissent, Justice Tom C. Clark distinguished the flat prohibition of publications in prior cases from the identification required in this case. In contrast to some other decisions relative to rights of association, he observed that there was no evidence that Talley would have suffered if he had identified himself. Clark did not think that First and Fourteenth Amendment protections of freedom of speech extended to anonymous speech and pointed to cases including lobbying and political campaigning in which the Court had upheld disclosure requirements. The Supreme Court later reaffirmed First Amendment protections for anonymous political speech in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995).

John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.

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