307 U.S. 496 (1939), argued 27–28 Feb. 1939, decided 5 June 1939 by vote of 5 to 2; Roberts for the Court, Stone and Hughes concurring, McReynolds and Butler in dissent, Frankfurter and Douglas not participating. The problem of state attempts to control public meetings first came before the Supreme Court in Hague v. CIO. The case involved the constitutionality of a Jersey City municipal ordinance requiring permits from a “director of public safety” for the conduct of public meetings and for the distribution of printed material in streets, parks, and other public places. Mayor Frank “I am Law” Hague had used the ordinance particularly against labor union activities. With support from the American Civil Liberties Union an injunction was sought against Hague's systematic denial of First Amendment rights. The injunction ordered the city to stop evicting union organizers and to cease interfering with meetings and the distribution of literature.
Upholding the injunction in a plurality opinion, the Supreme Court found the ordinance unconstitutional but the justices disagreed in their reasoning. Justice Owen Roberts, for the Court, defined the streets and parks as public forums protected by the First Amendment as a part of the privileges, immunities, rights and liberties of citizens. Stone, concurring, felt that the ordinance violated the right of U.S. citizens peaceably to assemble as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause.
The ruling was significant in opening public areas like streets and parks to free public discussion of ideas, no matter what the subject. Such use, the Court ruled, could be regulated, but not arbitrarily denied or abridged because the authorities did not favor the ideas being discussed. The ruling proved a boon to the labor movement, and was popular as the curtailment of the arbitrariness of local officials.
Paul L. Murphy