The Supreme Court decision in Thornhill v. Alabama, 310 U.S. 88 (1940), found that an Alabama law that made it illegal for a person to “loiter” around or “picket” a business with the intention of interfering with it was facially invalid and unconstitutionally denied the First Amendment right of freedom of expression.

Alabama law made it a crime to picket a business

Byron Thornhill, a union president, had joined a picket line protesting against his former employer. He was the only picketer fined $100 and arrested under Section 3448, an Alabama state law that made it a crime to picket a business. An Alabama state court convicted Thornhill, a decision that was upheld by the Alabama Court of Appeals. After the Alabama Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal, Thornhill petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for review.

Court found the law unconstitutional

Writing for the majority, Justice Frank W. Murphy noted that First Amendment freedoms were secured against state action by the Fourteenth Amendment and were designed to allow for the robust communication of ideas. He observed that the state had failed to narrow its interpretation of a law, which therefore applied to peaceful activity. He likened the law to a “licensing system” and observed that the law had been applied to a single individual engaged in peaceful protest. The range of activities covered by the Alabama law, he wrote, “whether characterized as picketing or loitering or otherwise, embraces nearly every practicable, effective means whereby those interested — including the employees directly affected — may enlighten the public on the nature and causes of a labor dispute.”

As to the state’s proclaimed interest in protecting the community from violence or breaches of the peace, Murphy argued that Alabama had failed to demonstrate any clear and present danger in this case; Schiller (1999, 30) says this is the first time a Court majority agreed on this standard. The sites of labor disputes, like public streets, were appropriate places “for the dissemination of information and opinion.”

Justice James McReynolds dissented without opinion.

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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