Feiner v. New York

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340 U.S. 315 (1951), argued 17 Oct. 1950, decided 15 Jan. 1951 by vote of 6 to 3; Vinson for the Court, Frank-furter concurring, Black, Douglas, and Minton in dissent. On the evening of 8 March 1949 college student Irving Feiner stood atop a wooden box on a street corner in Syracuse, New York, and harangued a mixed-race crowd of seventy-five to eighty people. Feiner excoriated President Harry Truman, the American Legion, and local officials, and he urged blacks to take up arms and fight for equal rights. The crowd became unruly, some of its members supporting Feiner and some opposing him. One man threatened violence. A policeman asked Feiner three times to get down off the box. When he refused, the officer arrested him for violation of a New York statute that made it a crime to use offensive, threatening, abusive, or insulting language with intent to provoke a breach of the peace. Feiner contended that his arrest and conviction violated his First Amendment right to freedom of expression, but the Supreme Court disagreed. Chief Justice Fred Vinson took the position that because the arrest was necessary to preserve order in the face of a clear and present danger to public safety, it was constitutional. In a strong dissent Justice Hugo Black argued that Feiner was being sent to the penitentiary because the views he had expressed on matters of public interest were unpopular. Feiner v. New York exemplifies the conservative, pro-government position generally taken by the Vinson Court in free speech cases.

Michael R. Belknap

Subjects: Law.

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