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|U.S. Const. amend. I|
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Cox v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536 (1965), is a United States Supreme Court case based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It held that a state government cannot employ "breach of the peace" statutes against protesters engaging in peaceable demonstrations that may potentially incite violence.
Background of the case
The case arose after the picketing of a segregated restaurant in Baton Rouge, Louisiana led to 23 student protesters from a black college being arrested. The next day, B. Elton Cox, a minister, arranged a protest of 2,000 people at the courthouse where the students were being held. The police agreed to allow the protest as long as it was across the street from the courthouse.
Between 100 to 300 whites gathered on the other side of the street. The protesters began to sing songs and hymns causing the jailed students to respond by singing.
Cox then gave a speech urging the other protesters to sit at the segregated lunch counters causing "muttering" and "grumbling" in the crowd across the street.
A sheriff then ordered the protesters to disperse. When they would not, the police used tear gas to disperse the crowd. The next day Cox was arrested.
All courts adhere to the same judicial standards as the Supreme Court, but local and state courts are more immediately influenced by the political and social environments specific to their location and representative body (Vines 1965: 5). For example, during the 1950s and 1960s, the courts governing Southern states and cities were more greatly influenced by the race struggles that they lived with and saw daily than courts in other areas of the country. In contrast to this, the “Supreme Court justices should have no constituency; they are appointed for life to sit as judges over all people.” (Steel 1968) Largely for this reason, Southern African Americans much preferred arguing in front of federal courts, where they felt they had a greater chance of being judged fairly and according to the law. Studies during the 1950s and 1960s show that African Americans were correct in their favoring of the federal courts over state, as federal courts decided in favor of African American defendants 60% more often than cases in Southern state courts. (Vines 1965: 10) This caused much tension and strife within the respective Southern state or community and forced the Supreme Court to rule in response to the controversial issues of race and discrimination.
By late 1964, when the Supreme Court heard arguments in Cox v. Louisiana, demonstrations and protests marked a change in American society. In a 1965 New York Times editorial, James Reston spoke on protest and social change when he said “this rising protest in the nation is having its effect.” (Reston 1965: 34) Reston also said “the new activist spirit of the church and the university in America, allied to the modern television and airplane, is now having a profound influence on law and politics in the United States." (Reston 1965) The large scale of demonstrations during this time period gained much public attention, with increased media attention and viewership. (Nielsen ratings were up by 46% more than average during coverage of a 1963 civil rights march in Washington DC. (see Adams, Val. "TV: Coverage of March". The New York Times August 29, 1963: p. 43.)
Justice Goldberg, writing for the court, overturned his conviction.
A key piece of evidence, countering the State's claim that the singing from the jail turned the peaceful assembly into a riotous one. There was a film of the protest; the judges watched it with rapt attention. The film showed that it was peaceful until the police joined in.
Labor unions were a factor in the Court's decision. Labor unions use picketing as a common tactic, so any case concerning public assembly is of great interest to labor groups. Justices Black and Clark made note of the obstruction charge as bad for labor picketing in their opinions, and even stated that the threat to labor picketing was their main reasoning for that decision. (Kalven 1965) In the words of one justice, Hugo L. Black, “Those who encourage minority groups to believe that the United States Constitution and Federal laws give them a right to patrol and picket in the streets whenever they choose, in order to advance what they think to be a just and noble end, do no service to those minority groups, their cause, or their country.” (Graham, pg 2) Another link with labor groups is Associate Justice Goldberg, the Justice who delivered the opinion in Cox v. Louisiana, was formally special counsel to the major labor group the AFL-CIO (New York Times July 16, 1960 pg. 7).
Cox v. Louisiana did not provide the response and verdict that some critics believe it could have (Steel, pg. 2) Instead, the Court's response to the civil rights movement was more ambivalent and reflective of white attitudes that were against black protest. Of the three convictions of Cox, (breach of peace, picketing near the courthouse, and obstruction of a public passageway), the justices all agreed that the breach of peace conviction did not stand. The justices disagreed about the convictions of picketing near the courthouse and the obstruction of a public passageway. While the courts did upset the convictions, “…the opinions…bristled with cautions and with a lack of sympathy for such forms of protest (Klaven pg. 8).”
- List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 379
- Brown v. Louisiana
- Adderley v. Florida
- Edwards v. South Carolina
References & further research
- Adams, Val. “TV: Coverage of March.” The New York Times August 29, 1963: p. 43.
- Katzenbach, Nicolas DeB. “Protest, Politics, and the First Amendment.” Tulane Law Review April 1970: p. 444.
- Kalven, Harry Jr. “The Concept of the Public Forum: Cox v. Louisiana” Supreme Court Review Vol. 1965 (1965): p. 8. 9 Graham, p. 2.
- Kenneth C. Vines, “Southern State Supreme Courts and Race Relations,” Western Political Quarterly 18 (1965): p. 5.
- Lewis M. Steel, “A critic’s view of the Warren Court – Nine Men in Black Who Think White”, The New York Times (October 13, 1968).
- Reston, James. “Washington : The Rising Spirit of Protest.” The New York Times March 19, 1965: p. 34. 6 Ibid
- "Labor Endorsement of Ticket Expected.” The New York Times July 16, 1960: p. 7