Feiner v. New York

340 U.S. 315 (1951)

Quick Summary

Irving Feiner (defendant) was convicted in Syracuse, New York (plaintiff), for disorderly conduct following a provocative public speech. The dispute centered around whether Feiner’s arrest violated his constitutional rights to free speech.

The issue before the United States Supreme Court was whether this conviction infringed upon Feiner’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The Court concluded that maintaining public order justified Feiner’s arrest and upheld his conviction, asserting that public safety concerns did not violate his free speech protections.

Facts of the Case

Irving Feiner (defendant) was convicted under New York’s disorderly conduct laws after making a provocative speech that addressed a racially mixed crowd. Feiner’s speech included critical comments about President Truman and other political figures, and he advocated for African Americans to ‘rise up in arms’ for equal rights.

The situation escalated when the police, after receiving a complaint and observing the crowd, asked Feiner to stop speaking multiple times. Feiner refused, leading to his arrest.

The State of New York (plaintiff) pursued the case, asserting that Feiner’s conduct and failure to obey police orders warranted the misdemeanor charge. Feiner contested his conviction, claiming it infringed upon his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The conviction was upheld by the New York Court of Appeals before reaching the United States Supreme Court.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Feiner was convicted of disorderly conduct by the Court of Special Sessions of the City of Syracuse.
  2. The Onondaga County Court affirmed the conviction.
  3. The New York Court of Appeals also affirmed the conviction.
  4. Feiner appealed to the United States Supreme Court, claiming a violation of his constitutional rights.

I.R.A.C. Format

Issue

Whether Feiner’s conviction for disorderly conduct violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to free speech.

Rule of Law

The rule applied by the Court is that speech likely to produce violence or breach of peace can be restricted. The State has the power to prevent or punish actions posing a clear and present danger to public safety, peace, or order.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court conducted an independent review of evidence to determine whether Feiner’s free speech rights were violated. The Court found that the police officers acted with proper discretion in attempting to prevent a breach of peace during Feiner’s speech.

The trial judge, supported by appellate courts, concluded that the police were justified in their actions due to the potential for violence and unrest incited by Feiner’s speech.

The Supreme Court emphasized the State’s interest in maintaining order on public streets and recognized that while free speech is protected, it does not extend to inciting riot or violence. The Court determined that Feiner’s arrest was not for the content of his speech but for the actual response it provoked in the audience.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court affirmed the conviction, ruling that Feiner’s arrest was constitutional as it was based on valid concerns for public safety and did not infringe upon his free speech rights.

Dissenting Opinions

Justice Black dissented, arguing that Feiner was convicted for expressing unpopular views and that the majority’s decision effectively allows police censorship of free speech. Justice Douglas, joined by Justice Minton, also dissented, maintaining that police should protect speakers at public assemblies rather than silence them.

Key Takeaways

  1. The Supreme Court affirms states’ power to restrict speech that may incite violence or breach peace.
  2. Protection of public safety can outweigh an individual’s right to free speech in situations where there is a clear and present danger.
  3. The Supreme Court will independently review evidence when constitutional rights are at stake.
  4. Dissenting opinions highlight the tension between maintaining public order and protecting freedom of speech.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes a 'clear and present danger' that could justify the restriction of free speech?

A ‘clear and present danger’ exists when speech is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action. Courts must balance the interests of free speech against the need for public order.

  • For example: Yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater when there is no fire, causing a panic, would constitute such a danger.

How does prior restraint contrast with subsequent punishment in the context of free speech laws?

Prior restraint refers to government actions that prevent speech from occurring in the first place, often viewed with particular skepticism by courts. Subsequent punishment, like in Feiner’s case, deals with penalties after the speech has occurred.

  • For example: A city ordinance requiring a permit for public demonstrations could result in prior restraint if used to block specific viewpoints, whereas arresting a speaker after inciting violence is subsequent punishment.

In what situations can law enforcement officers lawfully intervene in public assemblies without violating First Amendment rights?

Law enforcement can intervene to maintain public safety, prevent disorder, or protect rights of others when there is objective evidence suggesting an imminent threat or breach of peace.

  • For example: If a protest blocks emergency vehicle access, police may disperse the crowd to ensure public safety.

References

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