Company Towns and Freedom of Speech

With industrial development in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, some companies found that it was more practical to provide housing for employees near the factory, mine, etc. They would buy a substantial amount of land, build homes, pave roads, and lay sewers. The resulting ‘‘company town’’ was like any other town in almost every respect, except that title rested in the companies’ private hands. As large percentages of workers in many industries lived in company towns, the question arose as to whether individual liberties were protected.

In 1946, the Supreme Court held that on such land, while held in private hands, individuals still maintained constitutional rights. In Marsh v. Alabama the Court overturned the trespassing conviction of a Jehovah’s Witness who had attempted to distribute literature in the company town Chickasaw, Alabama. The Court wrote, ‘‘The more an owner, for his advantage, opens up his property for use by the public in general, the more do his rights become circumscribed by the rights of those who use it.’’ Chickasaw had been sufficiently opened to the public to mandate that First Amendment activity be allowed. The function to which the property was placed was tantamount, not where title to the land rested.

Company towns faded away, but the basic conflict did not. Analysis of individual rights on private property remains influenced by Marsh, such as in modern shopping centers, with proponents of greater individual liberties seeking protection under Marsh but private property owners often resisting.

MARK C. ALEXANDER

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Marsh v. Alabama, 326 U.S. 501 (1946)

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