Saia v. New York/Dissent Jackson
| Saia v. New York by
United States Supreme Court
SAIA v. NEW YORK
Argued: and Submitted March 30, 1948. --- Decided: June 7, 1948
Mr. Justice JACKSON, dissenting.
I dissent from this decision, which seems to me neither judicious nor sound and to endanger the great right of free speech by making it ridiculous and obnoxious, more than the ordinance in question menaces free speech by regulating use of loud-speakers. Let us state some facts which the Court omits:
The City of Lockport, New York, owns and maintains a public park of some 28 acres dedicated by deed to 'Park purposes exclusively'. The scene of action in this case is an area therein set apart for the people's recreation. The City has provided it with tables, benches, and fireplaces for picnic parties, a playground and wading pool for children, and facilities for such games as horseshoe pitching, bowling and baseball.
The appellant, one of Jehovah's Witnesses, contends, and the Court holds, that without the permission required by city ordinance he may set up a sound truck so as to flood this area with amplified lectures on religious subjects. It must be remembered that he demands even more than the right to speak and hold a meeting in this area which is reserved for other and quite inconsistent purposes. He located his car, on which loud-speakers were mounted, either in the park itself, not open to vehicles, or in the street close by. The microphone for the speaker was located some little distance from the car and in the park, and electric wires were strung, in one or more instances apparently across the sidewalk, from the one to the other. So that what the Court is holding, is that the Constitution of the United States forbids a city to require a permit for a private person to erect, in its streets, parks and public places, a temporary public address system, which certainly has potentialities of annoyance and even injury to park patrons if carelessly handled. It was for setting up this system of microphone, wires and sound truck without a permit, that this appellant was convicted-it was not for speaking.
It is astonishing news to me if the Constitution prohibits a municipality from policing, controlling or forbidding erection of such equipment by a private party in a public park. Certainly precautions against annoyance or injury from operation of such devices are not only appropriate, but I should think a duty of the city in supervising such public premises. And a very appropriate means to supervision is a permit which will inform the city's police officers of the time and place when such apparatusi § to be installed in the park. I think it is a startling perversion of the Constitution to say that it wrests away from the states and their subdivisions all control of the public property so that they cannot regulate or prohibit the irresponsible introduction of contrivances of this sort into public places.
The Court, however, ignores the aspects of the matter that grow out of setting up the system of amplifying appliances, wires and microphones on public property, which distinguish it from the cases cited as authority. It treats the issue only as one of free speech. To my mind this is not a free speech issue.  Lockport has in no way denied or restricted the free use, even in its park, of all of the facilities for speech with which nature has endowed the appeliant. It has not even interfered with his inviting an assemblage in a park space not set aside for that purpose.  But can it be that society has no control of apparatus which, when put to unregulated proselyting, propaganda and commercial uses, can render life unbearable? It is intimated that the City can control the decibels; if so, why may it not prescribe zero decibels as appropriate to some places? It seems to me that society has the right to control, as to place, time and volume, the use of loud-speaking devices for any purpose, provided its regulations are not unduly arbitrary, capricious or discriminatory.
But the Court points out that propagation of his religion is the avowed and only purpose of appellant and holds that Lockport cannot stop the use of loud-speaker systems on its public property for that purpose. If it is to be treated as a case merely of religious teaching, I still could not agree with the decision. Only a few weeks ago we held that the Constitution prohibits a state or municipality from using taxsupported property 'to aid religious groups to spread their faith.' People of State of Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 68 S.Ct. 461, 464. Today we say it compels them to let it be used for that purpose. In the one case the public property was appropriated to school uses; today it is public property appropriated and equipped for recreational purposes. I think Lockport had the right to allocate its public property to those purposes and to keep out of it installations of devices which would flood the area with religious appeals obnoxious to many and thereby deprive the public of the enjoyment of the property for the purposes for which it was properly set aside. And I cannot see how we can read the Constitution one day to forbid and the next day to compel use of public tax-supported property to help a religious sect spread its faith.
There is not the slightest evidence of discrimination or prejudice against the appellant because of his religion or his ideas. This same appellant, not a resident of Lockport but of Buffalo, by the way, was granted a permit by the Chief of Police and used this park for four successive Sundays during the same summer in question. What has been refused is his application for a second series of four more uses of the park. Lockport is in a climate which has only about three months of weather adaptable for park use. There are 256 recognized religious denominations in the United States and even if the Lockport populace supports only a few of these, it is apparent that Jehovah's Witnesses were granted more than their share of the Sunday time available on any fair allocation of it among denominations.
There is no evidence that any other denomination has ever been permitted to hold meetings or, for that matter, has ever sought to hold them in the recreation area. It appears that on one of the Sundays in question the Lutherans were using the ball park. This also appears to be public property. It is equipped with installed loud-speakers, a grandstand and bleachers, and surrounded by a fence six feet high. There is no indication that these facilities would not be granted to Jehovah's Witnesses on the same terms as to the Lutherans. It is evident, however, that Jehovah's Witnesses did not want an enclosed spot to which those who wanted to hear their message could resort. Appellant wanted to thrust their message upon people who were in the park for recreation, a type of conduct which invades other persons' privacy and, if it has no other control, may lead to riots and disorder.
The Court expresses great concern lest the loud-speakers of political candidates be controlled if Jehovah's Witnesses can be. That does not worry me. Even political candidates ought not to be allowed irresponsibly to set up sound equipment in all sorts of public places, and few of them would regard it as tactful campaigning to thrust themselves upon picnicking families who do not want to hear their message. I think the Court is over concerned about danger to political candidacies and I would deal with that problem when, and if, it arises.
But it is said the state or municipality may not delegate such authority to a Chief of Police. I am unable to see why a state or city may not judge for itself whether a Police Chief is the appropriate authority to control permits for setting up sound-amplifying apparatus. Cox v. New Hampshire, 312 U.S. 569, 61 S.Ct. 762, 85 L.Ed. 1049, 133 A.L.R. 1396. It also is suggested that the city fathers have not given sufficien guidance to his discretion. But I did not suppose our function was that of a council of revision. The issue before us is whether what has been done has deprived this appellant of a constitutional right. It is the law as applied that we review, not the abstract, academic questions which it might raise in some more doubtful case.
I disagree entirely with the idea that 'Courts must balance the various community interests in passing on the constitutionality of local regulations of the character involved here.' It is for the local communities to balance their own interests-that is politics-and what courts should keep out of. Our only function is to apply constitutional limitations.
I can only repeat the words of Mr. Justice Holmes, disregarded in his time and even less heeded now:
'I have not yet adequately expressed the more than anxiety that I feel at the ever increasing scope given to the Fourteenth Amendment in cutting down what I believe to be the constitutional rights of the States. As the decisions now stand, I see hardly and limit but the sky to the invalidating of those rights if they happen to strike a majority of this Court as for any reason unlesirable. I cannot believe that the Amendment was intended to give us carte blanche to embody our economic or moral beliefs in its prohibitions.' 
And even if this were a civil liberties case, I should agree with Chief Justice Hughes, writing for a unanimous Court:
'Civil liberties, as guaranteed by the Constitution, imply the existence of an organized society maintaining public order without which liberty itself would be lost in the excesses of unrestrained abuses.' 
The judgment of the Court of Appeals of New York should be affirmed.
^1 More than fifty years ago this Court in Davis v. Massachusetts, 167 U.S. 43, 17 S.Ct. 731, 42 L.Ed. 71, affirmed a state court decision (162 Mass. 510, 39 N.E. 113, 26 L.R.A. 712, 44 Am.St.Rep. 389) written by Mr. Justice Holmes and holding constitutional an ordinance providing that 'no person shall, in or upon any of the public grounds, make any public address * * * except in accordance with a permit from the mayor.' Mr. Justice Holmes had pointed out that the attack on the ordinance's constitutionality 'assumes that the ordinance is directed against free speech generally, * * * wheras in fact it is directed toward the modes in which Boston Common may be used.' That case, directly in point here, and approving a regulation of the right of speech itself, certainly controls this one, which involves only regulation of the use of amplifying devices, and, as applied to this appellant, forbade only unauthorized use in a park dedicated exclusively to park purposes. Moreover, the Davis case approved the requirement that a permit be obtained from a city official before 'any public address' could be made 'in or upon any of the public grounds.'
The Davis case was not overruled in the cases cited by the Court. And all of those cases were considered and distinguished in Cox v. New Hampshire, 312 U.S. 569, 61 S.Ct. 762, 85 L.Ed. 1049, 133 A.L.R. 1396, written by Mr. Chief Justice Hughes for a unanimous Court, and which approved regulation and licensing of parades and processions in public streets even for admittedly religious purposes.
The case of Hague v. C.I.O., 307 U.S. 496, 59 S.Ct. 954, 83 L.Ed. 1423, cannot properly be quoted in this connection, for no opinion therein was adhered to by a majority of the Court. The quotation in the Court's opinion today had the support of only two Justices, with a possible third. The failure of six or seven Justices to subscribe to those views would seem to fatally impair the standing of that quotation as an authority.
^2 Nothing in the ordinance interferes with freedom of religion, freedom of assembly or freedom of the press. Indeed, the effect of § 3 which the Court summarily strikes down as void on its face, is to authorize the Chief of Police to permit use of 'radio devices, mechanical devices, or loud speakers' where the subject matter is 'news and matters of public concern and athletic activities' even though 'the sound therefrom is cast directly upon the streets and public places' and 'the sounds coming therefrom can be heard to the annoyance or inconvenience of the travelers upon any street or public places or of persons in neigb oring premises' which would, without § 3, be barred by § 2.
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