Marsh v. Alabama
|Marsh v. Alabama|
|Argued December 7, 1945|
Decided January 7, 1946
|Full case name||Marsh v. State of Alabama|
|Citations||326 U.S. 501 (more)|
66 S. Ct. 276; 90 L. Ed. 265
|Prior||Defendant found guilty in Alabama Circuit Court; Alabama Court of Appeals affirmed; Alabama Supreme Court denied certiorari|
|Subsequent||Reversed and Remanded|
|Constitutional protections of free speech under First and Fourteenth Amendments still applicable within the confines of a town owned by a private entity.|
|Majority||Black, joined by Douglas, Murphy, Rutledge; Frankfurter (in part)|
|Dissent||Reed, joined by Stone, Burton|
|Jackson took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.|
|U.S. Const., amend. I, amend. XIV|
Marsh v. Alabama, 326 U.S. 501 (1946), was a case decided by the United States Supreme Court, in which it ruled that a state trespassing statute could not be used to prevent the distribution of religious materials on a town's sidewalk, even though the sidewalk was part of a privately owned company town. The Court based its ruling on the provisions of the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment.
The town of Chickasaw, Alabama, was predominantly a company town near Mobile, Alabama, that was owned and operated by the Gulf Shipbuilding Corporation ("Gulf"). The town exhibited the general characteristics of a more traditional settlement. The town's policeman was a deputy from the Mobile County Sheriff's Department who was paid by Gulf. The town was surrounded by a number of adjacent neighborhoods which were not located on Gulf property. The Court noted that the residents of these non-Gulf neighborhoods were freely allowed to use the company-owned streets and sidewalks to access the town's businesses and facilities.
The appellant, Grace Marsh, a Jehovah's Witness, stood near the post office one day, where she began distributing religious literature. Marsh was warned that she needed a permit to do so, and that none would be issued to her. When she was asked to leave, she refused on the grounds that the company rules against distribution of such materials could not be constitutionally applied to her. The deputy sheriff arrested her and she was charged with the Alabama criminal code's trespassing equivalent.
During her trial, Marsh contended that the statute could not be constitutionally applied to her, as it would necessarily violate her rights under the First and Fourteenth amendments. This contention was rejected and Marsh was convicted. The Alabama Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction, holding that the statute as applied was constitutional because the title to the sidewalk was in the corporation's name. It held that the public use of the sidewalk had not been such as to give rise to a presumption under Alabama law of its irrevocable dedication to the public. After the Alabama Supreme Court denied certiorari, and Marsh appealed her case to the United States Supreme Court.
In a 5–3 decision, the court ruled in favor of Marsh. The opinion, joined by three justices, was authored by Justice Hugo Black, with Justice Felix Frankfurter writing a concurrence, and Justice Stanley Forman Reed writing a dissent.
The Court initially noted that it would be an easy case if the town were a more traditional, publicly administered, municipality. Then, there would be a clear violation of the right to free speech for the government to bar the sidewalk distribution of such material. The question became, therefore, whether or not constitutional freedom of speech protections could be denied simply because a single company held title to the town.
The State attempted to analogize the town's rights to the rights of homeowners to regulate the conduct of guests in their home. The Court rejected that contention, noting that ownership "does not always mean absolute dominion." The court pointed out that the more an owner opens his property up to the public in general, the more his rights are circumscribed by the statutory and constitutional rights of those who are invited in.
In its conclusion, the Court stated that it was essentially weighing the rights of property owners against the rights of citizens to enjoy freedom of press and religion. The Court noted that the rights of citizens under the Bill of Rights occupy a preferred position. Accordingly, the Court held that the property rights of a private entity are not sufficient to justify the restriction of a community of citizens' fundamental rights and liberties.
Frankfurter's concurring opinion
Justice Frankfurter concurred in the Court's opinion with one exception. The majority opinion briefly mentioned the Commerce Clause as possibly being analogous to the case's circumstances. In his concurrence, Justice Frankfurter expressed his opinion that it was unnecessary to look to the Commerce Clause for guidance on a First Amendment issue.
Reed's dissenting opinion
Justice Reed introduced his dissent by noting that the Constitutional protections for religion, speech, and press are not absolute or unlimited in respect to the manner or place of their exercise. Furthermore, Reed asserted that property rights, which are also protected by the Constitution, "are not outweighed by the interests of the trespasser, even though he trespasses in behalf of religion or free speech."
While the Marsh holding at first appears somewhat narrow and inapplicable to the present day due to the disappearance of company towns from the United States, it was raised in the somewhat high-profile 1996 cyberlaw case, Cyber Promotions v. America Online, 948 F. Supp. 436, 442 (E.D. Pa. 1996). Cyber Promotions wished to send out "mass email advertisements" to AOL customers. AOL installed software to block those emails. Cyber Promotions sued on free speech grounds and cited the Marsh case as authority for the proposition that even though AOL's servers were private property, AOL had opened them to the public to a degree sufficient that constitutional free speech protections could be applied. The federal district court disagreed, thereby paving the way for spam filters at the Internet service provider level.
In Lloyd Corp. v. Tanner, the Supreme Court distinguished a private shopping mall from the company town in Marsh v. Alabama and held that the mall had not been sufficiently dedicated to public use for First Amendment free speech rights to apply within it.
Recently the case has been highlighted as a potential precedent to treat online communication media like Facebook as a public space to prevent it from censoring speech. However, in Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck the Supreme Court found that private companies only count as state actors for first amendment purposes if they exercise “powers traditionally exclusive to the state."
- List of United States Supreme Court cases involving the First Amendment
- List of United States Supreme Court cases, volume 326
- Link to Cyber Promotions opinion (.pdf download)
- "Facebook Is Censoring Science and Journalism". nationalreview.com. 31 August 2016.
Laws in California and New Jersey appear to agree. According to the First Amendment Center, both states consider shopping malls as the equivalent of public spaces when it comes to free-speech rights. The legal reasoning is ultimately rooted in the Supreme Court’s decision in 1946 in Marsh v. Alabama, which essentially held that a private space that is open to the public must uphold public rights. We believe that this is an apt and appropriate description of Facebook. With roughly 1.6 billion users, Facebook is the largest public space on earth.
- Coy, Peter (29 November 2017). "How to Tame Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple". bloomberg.com.
Facebook considers itself a marketplace of ideas and rails against the notion that it's a media company. Some critics are asserting a First Amendment right to free speech on Facebook, saying that it has become, in effect, a public space. They cite a 1946 Supreme Court decision, Marsh v. Alabama