310 U.S. 88 (1940), argued 29 Feb. 1940, decided 22 Apr. 1940 by vote of 8 to 1; Murphy for the Court, McReynolds in dissent. Thornhill v. Alabama explicitly placed peaceful labor picketing under the protection of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. In an opinion by Justice Frank Murphy, who had served as governor of Michigan during the 1937 General Motors sitdown strike, the Court struck down an Alabama statute that prohibited all manner of picketing. The Court overturned the statute because it did not regulate specific elements of labor demonstrations, such as the number of pickets, but rather proscribed “every practicable method whereby the facts of a labor dispute may be publicized” (p. 100). Murphy denied, however, that the First Amendment guaranteed an absolute right to picket. The value of picketing lay in its educational function, because public labor demonstrations could inform citizens about economic matters that were “indispensable to the effective and intelligent use of the processes of popular government to shape the destiny of modern industrial society” (p. 103). Thus, the government could properly regulate picketing that interfered with the public's ability to evaluate labor disputes.
Thornhill acknowledged that New Deal reforms had absorbed organized labor into the industrial polity. Protecting labor's freedom of expression served to incorporate the interests of the working class into the formulation of public policy. At the same time, the decision permitted courts to curtail picketing when the activities of picketers went beyond publicizing the issues of a labor dispute. In subsequent cases, the Court specifically invoked the Thornhill rationale to limit labor activism that threatened economic production. The Thornhill decision, therefore, reflected a balance between the protection of the constitutional rights of workers and the maintenance of economic stability in a changing industrial order.
Eric W. Rise