Kovacs v. Cooper/Concurrence Frankfurter

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United States Supreme Court

336 U.S. 77

Kovacs  v.  Cooper

 Argued: Oct. 11, 1948. --- Decided: Jan 31, 1949

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER, concurring.

Wise accommodation between liberty and order always has been, and ever will be, indispensable for a democratic society. Insofar as the Constitution commits the duty of making this accommodation to this Court, it demands vigilant judicial self-restraint. A single decision by a closely divided court, unsupported by the confirmation of time, cannot check the living process of striking a wise balance between liberty and order as new cases come here for adjudication. To dispose of this case on the assumption that the Saia case, 334 U.S. 558, 68 S.Ct. 1148, decided only the other day, was rightly decided, would be for me to start with an unreality. While I am not unaware of the circumstances that differentiate this case from what was ruled in Saia, further reflection has only served to r inforce the dissenting views I expressed in that case. Id., 334 U.S. at page 562, 68 S.Ct. at page 1150. In the light of them I conclude that there is nothing in the Constitution of the United States to bar New Jersey from authorizing the City of Trenton to deal in the manner chosen by the City with the aural aggressions implicit in the use of sound trucks.

The opinions in this case prompt me to make some additional observations. My brother REED speaks of 'The preferred position of freedom of speech,' though, to be sure, he finds that the Trenton ordinance does not disregard it. This is a phrase that has uncritically crept into some recent opinions of this Court. I deem it a mischievous phrase, if it carries the thought, which it may subtly imply, that any law touching communication is infected with presumptive invalidity. It is not the first time in the history of constitutional adjudication that such a doctrinaire attitude has disregarded the admonition most to be observed in exercising the Court's reviewing power over legislation, 'that it is a constitution we are expounding,' McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 407, 4 L.Ed. 579. I say the phrase is mischievous because it radiates a constitutional doctrine without avowing it. Clarity and candor in these matters, so as to avoid gliding unwittingly into error, make it appropriate to trace the history of the phrase 'preferred position.' The following is a chronological account of the evolution of talk about 'preferred position' except where the thread of derivation is plain enough to be indicated.

1. Herndon v. Lowry, 301 U.S. 242, 258, 57 S.Ct. 732, 739, 81 L.Ed. 1066: 'The power of a state to abridge freedom of speech and of assembly is the exception rather than the rule and the penalizing even of utterances of a defined character must find its justification in a reasonable apprehension of danger to organized government. The judgment of the Legislature is not unfettered. The limitation upon individual liberty must have appropriate relation to the safety of the state.'

2. United States v. Carolene Products Co., 304 U.S. 144, 151 note 4, 58 S.Ct. 778, 783, 82 L.Ed. 1234, set forth in the margin. [1] A footnote hardly seems to be an appropriate way of announcing a new constitutional doctrine, and the Carolene footnote did not purport to announce any new doctrine; incidentally, it did not have the concurrence of a majority of the Court. It merely rephrased and expanded what was said in Herndon v. Lowry, supra, and elsewhere. It certainly did not assert a presumption of invalidity against all legislation touching matters related to liberties protected by the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment. It merely stirred inquiry whether as to such matters there may be 'narrower scope for operation of the presumption of constitutionality' and legislation regarding them is therefore 'to be subjected to more exacting judicial scrutiny'.

The Carolene footnote is cited in Thornhill v. Alabama, 310 U.S. 88, 95, 60 S.Ct. 736, 741, 84 L.Ed. 1093, in an opinion which thus proceeds: 'Mere legislative preference for one rather than another means for combating substantive evils, therefore, may well prove an inadequate foundation on which to rest regulations which are aimed at or in their operation diminish the effective exercise of rights so necessary to the maintenance of democratic institutions. It is imperative that, when the effective exercise of these rights is claimed to be abridged, the courts should 'weigh the circumstances' and 'appraise the substantiality of the reasons advanced' in support of the challenged regulations. Schneider v. State * * *.'

It is cited again in the opinion of the Court in American Federation of Labor v. Swing, 312 U.S. 321, 325, 61 S.Ct. 568, 569, 85 L.Ed. 855, together with the Herndon and Schneider cases, in support of the statement that the 'right to free discussion' 'is to be guarded with a jealous eye.'

The Carolene footnote was last cited in an opinion of this Court in the passage of Thomas v. Collins, 323 U.S. 516, 530, 65 S.Ct. 315, 322, 89 L.Ed. 430, quoted below.

(3) Schneider v. State of New Jersey, 308 U.S. 147, 161, 60 S.Ct. 146, 151, 84 L.Ed. 155: 'In every case, therefore, where legislative abridgment of the rights (freedom of speech and of the press) is asserted, the courts should be astute to examine the effect of the challenged legislation. Mere legislative preferences or beliefs respecting matters of public convenience may well support regulation directed at other personal activities, but be insufficient to justify such as diminishes the exercise of rights so vital to the maintenance of democratic institutions. And so, as cases arise, the delicate and difficult task falls upon the courts to weigh the circumstances and to appraise the substantiality of the reasons advanced in support of the regulation of the free enjoyment of the rights.'

(4) Bridges v. California, 314 U.S. 252, 262, 263, 62 S.Ct. 190, 193, 194, 86 L.Ed. 192, 159 A.L.R. 1346: 'Moreover, the likelihood, however great that a substantive evil will result cannot alone justify a restriction upon freedom of speech or the press. The evil itself must be substantial', Brandeis, J., concurring in Whitney v. California, supra, 274 U.S. (357) at page 374, 47 S.Ct. (641) at page 647, 71 L.Ed. 1095; it must be 'serious,' Id., 274 U.S. at page 376, 47 S.Ct. at page 648, 71 L.Ed. 1095. And even the expression of 'legislative preferences or beliefs' cannot transform minor matters of public inconvenience or annoyance into substantive evils of sufficient weight to warrant the curtailment of liberty of expression. Schneider v. State * * *.

'What finally emerges from the 'clear and present danger' cases is a working principle that the substantive evil must be extremely serious and the degree of imminence extremely high before utterances can be punished.'

This formulation of the 'clear-and-present-danger' test was quoted and endorsed in Pennekamp v. Florida, 328 U.S. 331, 334, 66 S.Ct. 1029, 1030, 90 L.Ed. 1295.

(5) A number of Jehovah's Witnesses cases refer to the freedoms specified by the First Amendment, as in a 'preferred position.' The phrase was apparently first used in the dissent of Chief Justice Stone in Jones v. Opelika, 316 U.S. 584, 600, 608 62 S.Ct. 1231, 1240, 1244, 86 L.Ed. 1691, 141 A.L.R. 514. It reappears in Murdock v. Pennsylvania, 319 U.S. 105, 115, 63 S.Ct. 870, 876, 87 L.Ed. 1292, 146 A.L.R. 81; Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158, 164, 64 S.Ct. 438, 441, 88 L.Ed. 645; Follett v. Town of McCormick, 321 U.S. 573, 575, 64 S.Ct. 717, 718, 88 L.Ed. 938, 152 A.L.R. 317; Marsh v. Alabama, 326 U.S. 501, 509, 66 S.Ct. 276, 280, 90 L.Ed. 265; Saia v. New York, 334 U.S. 558, 562, 68 S.Ct. 1148, 1150.

(6) West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 639, 63 S.Ct. 1178, 1186, 87 L.Ed. 1628, 147 A.L.R. 674: 'The test of legislation which collides with the Fourteenth Amendment, because it also collides with the principles of the First, is much more definite than the test when only the Fourteenth is involved. Much of the vagueness of the due process clause disappears when the specific prohibitions of the First become its standard. The right of a State to regulate, for example, a public utility may well include, so far as the due process test is concerned, power to impose all of the restrictions which a legislature may have a 'rational basis' for adopting. But freedoms of speech and of press, of assembly, and of worship may not be infringed on such slender grounds. They are susceptible of restriction only to prevent grave and immediate danger to interests which the state may lawfully protect.'

(7) Thomas v. Collins, 323 U.S. 516, 530, 65 S.Ct. 315, 322, 89 L.Ed. 430: 'For these reasons any attempt to restrict those liberties must be justified by clear public interest, threatened not doubtfully or remotely, but by clear and present danger. The rational connection between the remedy provided and the evil to be curbed, which in other contexts might support legislation against attack on due process grounds, will not suffice. These rights rest on firmer foundation. Accordingly, whatever occasion would restrain orderly discussion and persuasion, at appropriate time and place, must have clear support in public danger, actual or impending. Only the gravest abuses, endangering paramount interests, give occasion for permissible limitation.' This is perhaps the strongest language dealing with the constitutional aspect of legislation touching utterance. But it was the opinion of only four members of the Court, since Mr. Justice Jackson, in a separate concurring opinion, referred to the opinion of Mr. Justice Rutledge only to say that he agreed that the case fell into 'the category of a public speech, rather than that of practicing a vocation as solicitor.' Id., 323 U.S. at page 548, 65 S.Ct. at page 331, 89 L.Ed. 430.

In short, the claim that any legislation is presumptively unconstitutional which touches the field of the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment, insofar as the latter's concept of 'liberty' contains what is specifically protected by the First, has never commen ed itself to a majority of this Court.

Behind the notion sought to be expressed by the formula as to 'the preferred position of freedom of speech' lies a relevant consideration in determining whether an enactment relating to the liberties protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is violative of it. In law also, doctrine is illuminated by history. The ideas now governing the constitutional protection of freedom of speech derive essentially from the opinions of Mr. Justice Holmes.

The philosophy of his opinions on that subject arose from a deep awareness of the extent to which sociological conclusions are conditioned by time and circumstance. Because of this awareness Mr. Justice Holmes seldom felt justified in opposing his own opinion to economic views which the legislature embodied in law. But since he also realized that the progress of civilization is to a considerable extent the displacement of error which once held sway as official truth by beliefs which in turn have yielded to other beliefs, for him the right to search for truth was of a different order than some transient economic dogma. And without freedom of expression, thought becomes checked and atrophied. Therefore, in considering what interests are so fundamental as to be enshrined in the Due Process Clause, those liberties of the individual which history has attested as the indispensable conditions of an open as against a closed society come to this Court with a momentum for respect lacking when appeal is made to liberties which derive merely from shifting economic arrangements. Accordingly, Mr. Justice Holmes was far more ready to find legislative invasion where free inquiry was involved than in the debatable area of economics. See my Mr. Justice Holmes and the Supreme Court, 58 et seq.

The objection to summarizing this line of thought by the phrase 'the preferred position of freedom of speech' is that it expresses a complicated process of constitutional adjudication by a deceptive formula. And it was Mr. Justice Holmes who admonished us that 'To rest upon a formula is a slumber that, prolonged, means death.' Collected Legal Papers, 306. Such a formula makes for mechanical jurisprudence.

Some of the arguments made in this case strikingly illustrate how easy it is to fall into the ways of mechanical jurisprudence through the use of oversimplified formulas. It is argued that the Constitution protects freedom of speech: Freedom of speech means the right to communicate, whatever the physical means for so doing; sound trucks are one form of communication; ergo that form is entitled to the same protection as any other means of communication, whether by tongue or pen. Such sterile argumentation treats society as though it consisted of bloodless categories. The various forms of modern so-called 'mass communications' raise issues that were not implied in the means of communication known or contemplated by Franklin and Jefferson and Madison. Cf. Associated Press v. United States, 326 U.S. 1, 65 S.Ct. 1416, 89 L.Ed. 2013. Movies have created problems not presented by the circulation of books, pamphlets, or newspapers, and so the movies have been constitutionally regulated. Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission, 236 U.S. 230, 35 S.Ct. 387, 59 L.Ed. 552, Ann.Cas. 1916C, 296. Broadcasting in turn has produced its brood of complicated problems hardly to be solved by an easy formula about the preferred position of free speech. See National Broadcasting Co. v. United States, 319 U.S. 190, 63 S.Ct. 997, 87 L.Ed. 1344.

Only a disregard of vital differences between natural speech, even of the loudest spellbinders, and the noise of sound trucks would give sound trucks the constitutional rights accorded to the unaided human voice. Nor is it for this Court to devise the terms on which sound trucks should be allowed to operate, if at all. These are matters for the legislative judgment controlled by public opinion. So long as a legislature does not prescribe what ideas may be noisily expre sed and what may not be, nor discriminate among those who would make inroads upon the public peace, it is not for us to supervise the limits the legislature may impose in safeguarding the steadily narrowing opportunities for serenity and reflection. Without such opportunities freedom of thought becomes a mocking phrase, and without freedom of thought there can be no free society.


^1  'There may be narrower scope for operation of the presumption of constitutionality when legislation appears on its face to be within a specific prohibition of the Constitution, such as those of the first ten Amendments, which are deemed equally specific when held to be embraced within the Fourteenth. See Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359, 369, 370, 51 S.Ct. 532, 535, 536, 75 L.Ed. 1117, 73 A.L.R. 1484; Lovell v. Griffin, 303 U.S. 444 (452), 58 S.Ct. 666 (669), 82 L.Ed. 949.

'It is unnecessary to consider now whether legislation which restricts those political processes which can ordinarily be expected to bring about repeal of undesirable legislation, is to be subjected to more exacting judicial scrutiny under the general prohibitions of the Fourteenth Amendment than are most other types of legislation. On restrictions upon the right to vote, see Nixon v. Herndon, 273 U.S. 536, 47 S.Ct. 446, 71 L.Ed. 759; Nixon v. Condon, 286 U.S. 73, 52 S.Ct. 484, 76 L.Ed. 984, 88 A.L.R. 458; on restraints upon the dissemination of information, see N ar v. Minnesota (ex rel. Olson), 283 U.S. 697, 713, 714, 718-720, 722, 51 S.Ct. 625, 630-633, 75 L.Ed. 1357; Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U.S. 233, 56 S.Ct. 444, 80 L.Ed. 660; Lovell v. Griffin, supra; on interferences with political organizations, see Stromberg v. California, supra, 283 U.S. 359, 369, 51 S.Ct. 532, 535, 75 L.Ed. 1117, 73 A.L.R. 1484; Fiske v. Kansas, 274 U.S. 380, 47 S.Ct. 655, 71 L.Ed. 1108; Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 373-378, 47 S.Ct. 641, 647-649, 71 L.Ed. 1095; Herndon v. Lowry, 301 U.S. 242, 57 S.Ct. 732, 81 L.Ed. 1066; and see Holmes, J., in Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652, 673, 45 S.Ct. 625, (632), 69 L.Ed. 1138; as to prohibition of peaceable assembly, see De Jonge v. Oregon, 299 U.S. 353, 365, 57 S.Ct. 255, 260, 81 L.Ed. 278.

'Nor need we enquire whether similar considerations enter into the review of statutes directed at particular religious, Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510, 45 S.Ct. 571, 69 L.Ed. 1070, 39 A.L.R. 468, or national, Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 43 S.Ct. 625, 67 L.Ed. 1042, 29 A.L.R. 1446; Bartels v. Iowa, 262 U.S. 404, 43 S.Ct. 628, 67 L.Ed. 1047; Farrington v. T. Tokushige, 273 U.S. 284, 47 S.Ct. 406, 71 L.Ed. 646, or racial minorities, Nixon v. Herndon, supra; Nixon v. Condon, supra: whether prejudice against discrete and insular minorities may be a special condition, which tends seriously to curtail the operation of those political processes ordinarily to be relied upon to protect minorities, and which may call for a correspondingly more searching judicial inquiry. Compare McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 428, 4 L.Ed. 579; South Carolina State Highway Department v. Barnwell Bros., 303 U.S. 177 (184, n. 2), 58 S.Ct. 510 (513), 82 L.Ed. 734, and cases cited.'

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).