312 U.S. 569 (1941), argued 7 Mar. 1941, decided 31 Mar. 1941 by vote of 9 to 0; Hughes for the Court. Beginning in the late 1930s the Jehovah's Witnesses, complaining that a variety of police laws denied them religious freedom, set out to test such legislation. Initially successful, the sect received a mild judicial rebuff in Cox v. New Hampshire. A Manchester city ordinance required every parade or procession upon a public street to obtain a license and pay a fee. A group of Jehovah's Witnesses marched single file through the streets carrying placards to advertise a meeting without the license or fee. They were arrested. Cox, their leader, argued that the defendants did not have a parade. They also claimed that the ordinance was invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment for depriving them of their freedom to worship, freedom of speech and press, and freedom of assembly. The ordinance, they contended, vested unreasonable, arbitrary power in the licensing authority and was vague and indefinite.
A unanimous Supreme Court upheld the measure as a reasonable police regulation designed to promote the safe and orderly use of the streets. The Court made clear that it was treating the license requirement as a traffic regulation and that the conviction was not for conveying information or holding a meeting.
The loss was a temporary setback to the Witnesses’ program. Cox initiated a long line of cases establishing the right of government to make reasonable regulations concerning the time, place, and manner of speech, so long as those regulations were not used to prevent speech or to favor some speakers over others.
Paul L. Murphy