In Beauharnais v. Illinois, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the validity of a 1917 Illinois group libel statute, finding that such speech fell outside the protections of the First Amendment. Speaking for a divided Court, Justice Frankfurter’s majority opinion drew on the reasoning in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire wherein libel was excluded from Constitutional protection, and on Cantwell v. Connecticut for the authority of states to punish speech that would ‘‘incite violence and breaches of the peace.’’ Subsequent decisions, however, have cast doubt on the continuing validity of the Court’s decision in Beauharnais.
Joseph Beauharnais, president of the While Circle League of America, was arrested and convicted for distributing leaflets calling for a halt to the ‘‘further encroachment, harassment and invasion of white people, their property, neighborhoods and persons by the Negro . . .’’, and further claiming that whites were in danger of being ‘‘mongrelized’’ by ‘‘the Negro.’’ The Illinois law, passed against the backdrop of deadly race riots in that state, made it illegal to manufacture, sell, distribute, or exhibit anything that defames a class of citizens when such publication would expose a member of such group to ‘‘contempt, derision, or obloquy or which is productive of breach of the peace or riots.’’
Noting that the Illinois Supreme Court characterized Beauharnais’s words as ‘‘liable to cause violence or disorder’’ and that one traditional basis of criminal libel law was to punish words likely to cause a breach of the peace, Justice Frankfurter’s deference to the legislature in this case was colored by the state’s acknowledged long history of racial strife. The opinion extended the scope of unprotected speech from libelous statements made against individuals to an entire race, class, or group of citizens, since it would be ‘‘arrant dogmatism . . . for [the Court] to deny that the Illinois legislature may warrantably believe that a man’s job and his educational opportunities and the dignity accorded him may depend as much on the reputation of the racial and religious group to which he willy-nilly belongs, as on his own merits.’’
The majority opinion was met with four dissents, including Justice Black whose expansive interpretation of the First Amendment led him to criticize the Court’s reliance on Chaplinsky, confining the decision to face-to-face encounters directed at individuals, and to attack the Illinois law as overly broad and tantamount to ‘‘censorship.’’ Justice Douglas warned of the dangers of allowing legislatures to determine which kinds of speech may be proscribed, as ‘‘today a white man stands convicted for protesting in unseemly language against our decisions invalidating restrictive covenants. Tomorrow a Negro will be hauled before a court for denouncing lynch law in heated terms.’’
Just as the Supreme Court seemed to uphold the validity of group libel laws, proponents of group libel legislation turned their focus away from prohibiting group defamation and towards bolstering freedom of expression and individual rights. The dissenters in Beauharnais proved to foreshadow the future direction of Supreme Court First Amendment jurisprudence, which expanded the protections afforded offensive speech in such cases as Brandenburg v. Ohio and Cohen v. California. Moreover, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and Collin v. Smith cast doubt on the presumption of damage to the individual members of a group from criticism of a group, while the latter case also undermined the view that ‘‘fighting words need not be used in a personally abusive manner when they consist of language which defames a race or religion.’’ As such, the Beauharnais decision appears eclipsed by decisions more protective of provocative speech, and its precedential value damaged if not completely diluted.
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited