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Lovell v. City of Griffin


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303 U.S. 444 (1938), argued 4 Feb. 1938, decided 28 Mar. 1938 by vote of 8 to 0; Hughes for the Court, Cardozo not participating. Although the Supreme Court suggested in Gitlow v. New York (1925) that the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech was applicable to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, it was not until Everson v. Board of Education (1947) that it so held with respect to both the religious establishment and free exercise clauses. During the intermediate period the Court developed a technique it still occasionally uses of treating religion cases as if they were free speech cases. Lovell v. Griffin was an example of such treatment.

Alma Lovell, an adherent of the Jehovah's Witnesses, refused to abide by the city's ordinance that required the city manager's written permission for distribution or sale of circulars, magazines, pamphlets, or handbooks. She regarded herself as sent by “Jehovah to do His work,” and that such an application would have been “an act of disobedience to His commandment.”

The Court did not deal with the religious aspects of the case and did not even mention the Jehovah's Witnesses by name. Instead, it held the ordinance invalid as a violation of freedom of the press. The liberty of the press was not confined to newspapers and periodicals, the Court said; it necessarily embraced pamphlets and leaflets. Nor could the ordinance be saved because it related to distribution rather than publication; liberty of circulation was as essential as liberty of publication.

Leo Pfeffer

Subjects: Law.


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