The First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly have long been used as tools to spur political reform in our country. In December of 1961, a few years before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Reverend Elton Cox led approximately 2000 African-American students in a civil rights march in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to protest the recent arrest of students picketing racially segregated establishments. It began at the old State Capitol building and was to proceed to the courthouse where the picketers were being held.
Cox refused to disband the group when contacted by authorities. Near the courthouse, Cox explained the march to the police chief, who gave directions to stay on the sidewalk across the street and to refrain from interfering with traffic. The marchers followed the instructions. When Cox encouraged marchers to demand service at segregated diners, there was muttering and grumbling from a group of several hundred white onlookers. The local sheriff then stated that the protestors were now violating the law and ordered them to disband. Police began grabbing some students. Within moments, the police used tear gas on the demonstrators.
The next day, the police arrested Cox for disturbing the peace and for obstructing public passages (the sidewalk across the street from the courthouse) and other offenses. Cox was convicted. The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld his convictions. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether these convictions infringed on Cox’s First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly.
The Supreme Court reversed the convictions. The conduct of the marchers, which included singing, clapping, and cheering, did not exceed the sort of activities expected at a peaceful assembly and did not establish a breach of the peace. The Supreme Court cited cases like Edwards v. South Carolina, which protected similar First Amendment conduct and held that the breach of the peace statute, as interpreted by the Louisiana Supreme Court, was unconstitutionally overbroad. As for the argument that encouraging demonstrators to demand service at segregated lunch counters could result in violence, the Court noted that the free speech and free assembly rights could not be denied based on hostility to the assertion or exercise of such rights. The Supreme Court explained that the function of free speech is to invite dissent, induce unrest, or stir people to anger.
When considering the statute that prohibited the obstruction of public passages, the Supreme Court distinguished between communicating ideas through conduct from communicating ideas through ‘‘pure speech’’ and rejected the claim that communicative conduct was afforded the same protections as pure speech. Although Cox’s conduct violated the statute, the statute violated the First Amendment, because it granted local authorities unfettered discretion to restrict speech and assembly by deciding which views would be permitted. The Supreme Court overturned this conviction as well. Cox v. Louisiana was one of several important cases for the Civil Rights movement. It also helped protect the rights of freedom of speech and assembly from impermissible restrictions by local authorities exercising unfettered statutory discretion.
VINCENT L. RABAGO
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited
See also Civil Rights Act of 1964; Civil Rights Laws and Freedom of Speech; Demonstrations and Sit-ins; First Amendment and PACs; Speech Tests; Freedom of Assembly; Freedom of Assembly Infringed; Freedom of Speech and Public Property; Incitement to Violence and Free Speech; Johnson, Lyndon Baines; Public Forum Doctrines