The Supreme Court decision in Lamont v. Postmaster General, 381 U.S. 301 (1965), invalidated a statute allowing the Postmaster General to regulate the flow of “communist political propaganda” through the mails.

Lamont was the first time the Supreme Court invalidated a federal statute under the speech and press clauses of the First Amendment, the first case to hold that the First Amendment includes a “right to receive,” and the first time a justice used the phrase “marketplace of ideas” in a judicial opinion.

Postmaster could hold mail determined to be communist propaganda

The law at issue in Lamont required the Postmaster General to review postal matter sent from abroad and determine at his or her discretion which constituted “communist political propaganda.” If the postmaster general determined that the mail was indeed communist propaganda, the addressee of the material would receive a postcard instead of the mail.

The addressee could return the postcard to the post office indicating a desire to receive the materials, upon receipt of which the post office would deliver them. If the addressee did not return the postcard, the post office would not deliver the withheld materials. The statute exempted sealed letters, materials sent pursuant to a subscription, and all mail sent to government agencies and educational institutions.

Dr. Corliss Lamont, who engaged in publishing and distributing pamphlets, had been mailed a copy of the Peking Review #12. Rather than respond to the notice of mail detention, Lamont filed suit to enjoin enforcement of the statute.

Supreme Court rules mail regulation was First Amendment violation

The Court invalidated the law because it “require[d] an official act (viz., returning the reply card) as a limitation on the unfettered exercise of the addressees[’] First Amendment rights.” The Court concluded that the statute was “almost certain to have a deterrent effect, especially as respects those who have sensitive positions,” and thus “amount[ed] to an unconstitutional abridgment of the addressee’s First Amendment rights.”

Justice William O. Douglas wrote the Court’s unanimous opinion, and Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote a separate concurrence.

'Right to receive publications' is fundamental right, Brennan writes

Justice Brennan made explicit what had been implicit in the majority opinion, declaring that “the right to receive publications is . . . a fundamental right,” the protection of which is “necessary to make the express guarantees [of the First Amendment] fully meaningful.” Although mentioned in a concurrence only, the “right to receive” was clearly acknowledged by the entire Court because the Court premised its holding on the addressee’s, rather than the foreign speaker’s, constitutional claim in order to avoid the difficult question of whether foreign governments have First Amendment rights.

Building on Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s use of the phrase “competition of the market" in his famous dissent in Abrams v. United States (1919), Justice Brennan stated in Lamont: “It would be a barren marketplace of ideas that had only sellers and no buyers.” By comparing the exchange of ideas to the exchange of goods in a marketplace, Justice Brennan highlighted the intrinsic necessity of buyers of goods and, analogously, the importance of a “right to receive” ideas.

Send Feedback on this article