Brown v. Louisiana/Dissent Black

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United States Supreme Court

383 U.S. 131

Brown  v.  Louisiana

 Argued: Dec. 6, 1965. --- Decided: Feb 23, 1966

Mr. Justice BLACK, with whom Mr. Justice CLARK, Mr. Justice HARLAN, and Mr. Justice STEWART join dissenting.

I do not believe that any provision of the United States Constitution forbids any one of the 50 States of the Union, including Louisiana, to make it unlawful to stage 'sit-ins' or 'stand-up' in their public libraries for the purpose of advertising objections to the State's public policies. That, however, is precisely what the Court or at least a majority of the Court majority [1] here holds that all the States are forbidden to do by our Constitution. I dissent. The three opinions written for the majority of five who reverse these convictions make it necessary for me to state the relevant facts, circumstances, and issues in this case as I view them.

Representatives of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) claimed that Negroes had been 'locked out' of libraries operated jointly by three Louisiana parishes. A 'demonstration was planned' by the organization 'to integrate the Library,' and accordingly these five petitioners, all Negroes, went to the Audubon Regional Library located at Clinton, Louisiana, on a Saturday morning about 11:30 'to sit-in at the Library.' The county sheriff, whose office was in the courthouse within sight of the library building, had received information that 'they (referring to CORE) were going to sit-in, or that something was going to take place at the Library that morning,' and noticed the petitioners when they went by his office on their way to the library. Upon arrival at the library petitioners were met inside the building by Mrs. Reeves, who was the assistant librarian. She courteously asked them if she could help them in any way. One of the group, petitioner Brown, handed her a slip of paper on which was written the title of a book which he said he wanted. Mrs. Reeves went to her shelves and her catalogues, and after making a search, came back and told Mr. Brown that the library did not have the book, but that she could request it from the state library and probably get it for him. She told him she would do this. Mr. Brown then sat down in the only chair in the library room other than the chair at Mrs. Reeves' desk, and the other four petitioners stood around him. When petitioners did not leave, Mrs. Reeves told the group again that she would send for the book, and when Mr. Brown continued to sit and the others continued to stand, she asked them to leave. They did not leave, so Mrs. Reeves then called Mrs. Perkins, the regional librarian and told Mrs. Perkins about the situation. Mrs. Perkins went to Mr. Brown and told him she did not know whether he understood that a request for the book he had asked for would be sent to the state library. Along about that time Mr. Brown said to Mrs. Perkins, 'what about the Constitution?' but did not request that any copy of the Constitution be given to him. Mrs. Perkins then repeated the request of Mrs. Reeves that petitioners leave the library telling them 'that the one who seemed to want something had been served.' About 10 or 15 minutes after the petitioners came to the library, when according to Mrs. Perkins' testimony she was just about to call the sheriff over the phone, the sheriff came into the library. Mrs. Perkins explained to him that Mrs. Reeves had taken petitioners' application for the book they wanted, that the book was not available, that she and Mrs. Reeves had both requested the petitioners to leave, and that they would not do so. After learning these facts, the sheriff also asked petitioners to leave the library building and stated that he would have to arrest them if they did not. The petitioners refused to leave, and speaking for the group petitioner Brown told the sheriff 'that he was not going to leave the Library.' Thereupon the sheriff immediately arrested all of them. Petitioners, while in the library, never talked in unusually loud voices and used no bad language. Beyond Mr. Brown's request for the book which the library did not have, none of the petitioners at any time prior to his arrest requested any further service of either of the librarians, nor did any petitioner in any other way seek to read in the library or otherwise use any of the library's facilities except for sitting and standing purposes.

The Clinton branch of the Audubon Regional Library is not a large one. It appears to be used almost entirely as a circulating and not a reading library. The duty of Mrs. Reeves, assistant librarian, according to her testimony which was not disputed, was 'To assist people who come into the Library to select their books; check out the books to them; to keep the shelves in order, and to keep a record of the circulation of the day.' In the library's 'lobby,' where the events of this case took place, there were book shelves and one table on each side; also in the room were a desk and chair for the librarian, and one other chair. The two tables were used mainly for book display and magazines. It was not against the policy of the library to allow citizens with library registration cards to read if they cared to. But according to Mrs. Reeves' testimony at trial, 'very few people read; if a book is there and they want it, they take it and go.' Mrs. Perkins testified that 'We do not maintain a reading-room, as such, we do not have the space for it.' Mrs. Perkins later referred to the 'lobby' as the 'adult reading-room, the adult service-room.'

The particular part of the Louisiana statute, [2] under which petitioners were convicted, contrary to implications in the other opinions, has never been before this Court previous to this time. It provides as follows:

'Whoever with intent to provoke a breach of the peace, or under circumstances such that a breach of the peace may be occasioned thereby * * * congregates with others * * * in any * * * public building * * *, and who fails or refuses to * * * move on, when ordered so to do by any law enforcement officer of any municipality * * * or any other authorized person * * * shall be guilty of disturbing the peace.'

The information against these petitioners charged, substantially in the language of the statute, that petitioners failed and refused to leave the library when ordered to do so by Mrs. Perkins who was in lawful charge of the library and also failed to leave the premises when ordered to do so by the sheriff.

Because I think that the crucial issues to be decided here are much narrower and far less complicated than the prevailing opinion implies, I find it necessary first to point out that several matters discussed in that opinion are, in my judgment, either irrelevant, or do not justify the inferences drawn from them.

In concluding to reverse these convictions the prevailing opinion relies almost entirely on three prior breach of the peace cases which have come to this Court from the State of Louisiana, and Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229, 83 S.Ct. 680, 9 L.Ed.2d 697. I think that none of these four cases has any appreciable bearing on what the Court should hold in this case.

(a) The first of these cases is Garner v. State of Louisiana, 368 U.S. 157, 82 S.Ct. 248, 7 L.Ed.2d 207, decided in December 1961. That case, involving 'sit-in' demonstrations at several lunch counters, was decided under an old Louisiana breach of the peace statute. The section involved here was added to the old law after the events described in that case took place, but before the Court's opinion. The old law considered in Garner did not contain any phrase similar to the one under consideration here which makes it an offense to disturb the peace by congregating in a public building over the protest of a person rightfully in charge of the building. Moreover, the majority of the Court in Garner, in construing the old law, noted the presence of the new section, and expressly contrasted its reach with that of the older statute. 368 U.S., at 168-169, 82 S.Ct., at 254-255. There are other significant differences between Garner and this case, but the fact that Garner involved an almost entirely different statute, which was expressly distinguished from the present one by the Court's opinion, makes it hard for me to see how the Court's Garner holding can provide any meaningful support for the reversal of these convictions.

(b) The second Louisiana breach of the peace case upon which the prevailing opinion relies for reversal is Taylor v. State of Louisiana, 370 U.S. 154, 82 S.Ct. 1188, 8 L.Ed.2d 395. That case as described today in the prevailing opinion 'concerned a sit-in by Negroes in a waiting room at a bus depot, reserved 'for whites only." In Taylor, the Court in a short per curiam opinion held merely that the breach of the peace convictions could not be supported where 'the only evidence to support the charge was that petitioners were violating a custom that segregated people in waiting rooms according to their race' contrary to federal law. 370 U.S., at 156, 82 S.Ct. at 1189. There was no indication in that case that persons, having no business whatever in a bus depot except in stage a public protest against some state policy, have a constitutional right to occupy the depot's space after having been requested by competent authorities to leave.

(c) The case relied on most heavily by the prevailing opinion and my Brother Brennan is Cox v. State of Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536, 85 S.Ct. 453, 13 L.Ed.2d 471. That case, unlike this one, involved picketing and patrolling in the streets, and correspondingly that part of the Louisiana breach of the peace statute which prohibited certain kinds of street activity. The language of the phase of the statute under consideration here, relating to congregating in public buildings and refusing to move on when ordered to do so by an authorized person, was in no way involved or discussed in Cox. The problems of state regulation of the streets on the one hand, and public buildings on the other, are quite obviously separate and distinct. Public buildings such as libraries, schoolhouses, fire departments, courthouses, and executive mansions are maintained to perform certain specific and vital functions. Order and tranquility of a sort entirely unknown to the public streets are essential to their normal operation. Contrary to the implications in the prevailing opinion it is incomprehensible to me that a State must measure disturbances in its libraries and on the streets with identical standards. Furthermore, the vice of discriminatory enforcement, which contaminates the 'public street' phase of this statute, [3] does not beset the statute's application to activity in public buildings. In the public building, unlike the street, peace and quiet is a fast and necessary rule, and as a result there is much less room for peace officers to abuse their authority in enforcing the 'public building' part of the statute.

In my Brother BRENNAN's separate concurring opinion the contention seems to be made that in Cox this Court declared as unconstitutionally vague not only the part of the Louisiana statute under which Cox was convicted relating to picketing in the streets, but also the part creating the offense under which petitioners here were convicted. If this is true it means that in Cox the Court declared unconstitutional both the parts of the statute creating the offenses involved in the Cox case and this one, and also all of the some 30-odd separate and diverse offenses enumerated in the statute ranging from the making of obscene remarks and gestures, to causing a disturbance on a public bus, to refusing to leave the private premises of another when asked to do so by the owner. If the Court's holding was that broad it has placed in great jeopardy every breach of the peace statute in this country. I do not think the Court intended to do any such thing. I can see nothing in the Court's opinion in Cox or in any of the concurring opinions, one of which I wrote, which indicates an intention to make such a sweeping condemnation of breach of the peace statutes. In Cox this Court held unconstitutional the part of the statute under which Cox was convicted because as construed by the Louisiana Supreme Court it authorized 'persons to be punished merely for peacefully expressing unpopular views.' 379 U.S., at 551, 85 S.Ct., at 462. The part of the statute involved here which makes it an offense to congregate in a public building and refuse to leave it when asked to do so by an authorized person, does not affect or threaten in any way an exercise of the rights of free speech, and the Louisiana courts did not so construe this phase of the statute as they had construed the part under which Cox was convicted. The phase of the statute under scrutiny in this case clearly and precisely regulates certain particular conduct in language which taken as a whole has no ambiguity whatever. Persons of ordinary intelligence would have no difficulty whatever in knowing that this part of the statute requires them to move on from a public building when an authorized person asks them to do so. See United States v. Petrillo, 332 U.S. 1, 5-8, 67 S.Ct. 1538, 1540-1542, 91 L.Ed. 1877. The only conduct reached by this part of the statute is a refusal to move on when requested to do so by an authorized person and this conduct is described in words declared in Cox to be 'narrow and specific.' [4] 379 U.S., at 551, 85 S.Ct., at 462. Since petitioners here had no library business whatever the Constitution of the United States does not require that they be permitted to remain in the library despite state law to the contrary.

(d) The fourth case which the prevailing opinion cites as indicating that the 'public building' phase of the Louisiana statute is unconstitutional is Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229, 83 S.Ct. 680, 9 L.Ed.2d 697. This Court's holding in the Edwards case, however, was based on the fact that the statute construed there was not narrowly drawn to assure its nondiscriminatory application. Here the part of the Louisiana statute relating to public buildings, as construed and applied by the Louisiana courts, does clearly describe the offense. Nothing in Edwards as I read it, states any principle of constitutional law under which a State must permit its public libraries, dedicated to reading and learning and studying, to be used for the purpose of conducting protests against public or private policies. And that is the constitutional issue in the present case.

I find nothing in these four cases, nor in any other case decided by this Court that I can recall, which restricts Louisiana's power to enforce that part of its statute on which these convictions rest in order to maintain peace and order in its public libraries so as to further the extremely necessary purposes underlying their existence.

The prevailing opinion and to some extent the two separate concurring opinions treat this case as though Louisiana was here attempting to enforce a policy of denying Louisiana citizens the right to use the State's libraries on account of race. Whatever may have been the policy of the State of Louisiana in the past or may be the policy of that State at the present, at other places or in other circumstances, there simply was no racial discrimination practiced in this case. These petitioners were treated with every courtesy and granted every consideration to which they were entitled in the Audubon Regional Library. They asked for a book, perhaps as the prevailing opinion suggests more as a ritualistic ceremonial than anything else. The lady in charge nevertheless hunted for the book, found she did not have it, sent for it, and later obtained it from the state library for petitioners' use. [5] No petitioner asked for any other book, none indicated that he wanted to read any other book, and none attempted to read any other book or any other printed matter. As a matter of fact the record shows, and the prevailing opinion admits, that the five petitioners stayed in the library not to use it for learning but as 'monuments of protest' to voice their disapproval of what they thought was a policy of the State. Although Mrs. Perkins, the branch's librarian, testified unambiguously that there was no racial discrimination practiced at her library, and although the record shows without the slightest dispute that there was no discrimination of any kind or character practiced against these petitioners, in at least the prevailing opinion and that of my Brother White it is nevertheless implied at several places that the equal treatment given these petitioners was some kind of subterfuge or sham. These aspersions are I think wholly without justification. The prevailing opinion refers to the 'tidy plan' of the State; with reference to the service given petitioners it says that 'We may assume that the response constituted service, and we need not consider whether it was merely a gambit in the ritual'; it insinuates that Louisiana was playing a 'game' with petitioners' rights, and the courteous treatment given petitioners by the librarian is degraded by calling it a 'gesture of service'; it, moreover, refers to the State's argument in this case as giving a 'piquant version of the affair.' I see no basis or reason for these innuendos against the State's defense of its convictions in this case. The State's District Attorney, who argued the case before us, stated frankly and forthrightly that there would be no defense had Louisiana denied these petitioners equal service at its public libraries on account of their race. There was no such denial. We must now consider the Court's reversal on its merits.

As best I can tell, one ground upon which both the prevailing opinion and that of my Brother White rely to reverse these convictions is that the State failed to prove its case. This conclusion appears to be based on the assumption that under the Louisiana statute properly construed, there can be no conviction unless persons who do not want library service stay there an unusually long time after being ordered to leave, make a big noise, use some bad language, engage in fighting, try to provoke a fight, or in some other way become boisterous. The argument seems to be that without a blatant, loud manifestation of aggressive hostility or an exceedingly long 'sit-in' or 'sojourn' in a public library, there are no circumstances which could foreseeably occasion a breach of the peace. Louisiana has not so construed its statute nor should we. Doing so goes against common sense and common understanding. While soft words can undoubtedly turn away wrath, they may also provoke it. Disturbers of the peace do not always rattle swords or shout invectives. It is high time to challenge the assumption in which too many people have too long acquiesced, that groups that think they have been mistreated or that have actually been mistreated have a constitutional right to use the public's streets, buildings, and property to protest whatever, wherever, whenever they want, without regard to whom such conduct may disturb.

The phase of the Louisiana statute that we are considering here is to all intents and purposes aimed at trespassers on government property. In addition, subdivision (4) of the same Louisiana law makes it an offense for one to refuse to leave the premises of another when requested to do so by the owner. Both of these provisions of the state statute, however, provide that before an offense is committed, the conduct must be engaged in 'with intent to provoke a breach of the peace, or under circumstances such that a breach of the peace may be occasioned thereby.' There is a long history behind trespass laws in the United States. Invasion of another man's property over his protest is one of the surest ways any person can pick out to disturb the peace. Louisiana, just like any other State in this Union, has a right to pass and use laws based on knowledge of this fact, a knowledge so widespread and prevalent that it would probably be difficult to find a hermit ignorant of its existence.

I think that the evidence in this case established every element in the offense charged against petitioners. No one disputes the fact that petitioners congregated in a public building and refused to move on when ordered to do so by authorized persons. The only factual question which can possibly arise regarding the application of the statute here is whether under Louisiana law petitioners either intended to breach the peace or created circumstances under which a breach might have been occasioned. The record shows that petitioners, as part of a plan, entered the library and once there stayed despite the librarians' protests until its normal activity was completely disrupted. To be sure, there were not '100 to 300 'grumbling' white onlookers' as there were in Cox v. State of Louisiana, supra, but surely, in the prevailing opinion's futile effort to rely on Cox, it is not meant that 300 or 100 grumbling onlookers must be crowded into a library before Louisiana can maintain an action under this statute. A tiny parish branch library, staffed by two women, is not a department store as in Garner v. State of Louisiana, supra, nor a bus terminal as in Taylor v. State of Louisiana, supra, nor a public thoroughfare as in Edwards v. South Carolina, supra, and Cox. Short of physical violence, petitioners could not have more completely upset the normal, quiet functioning of the Clinton branch of the Audubon Regional Library. The state courts below thought the disturbance created by petitioners constituted a violation of the statute. So far as the reversal here rests on a holding that the Louisiana statute was not violated, the Court simply substitutes its judgment for that of the Louisiana courts as to what conduct satisfies the requirements of that state statute. We are a long way off from what happened there to substitute our judgment for theirs. To do so not only upsets settled doctrine concerning the interpretation of state statutes by federal courts, see, e.g., Garner v. State of Louisiana, supra, 368 U.S. at 166, 82 S.Ct. at 253; Kingsley Intern. Pictures Corp. v. Regents of University, 360 U.S. 684, 688, 79 S.Ct. 1362, 1365, 3 L.Ed.2d 1512, but also builds on shifting sands that ignore the realities of life in our country.

Having already attempted to hold, wrongfully I think, that these convictions should be set aside as unconstitutional because of a complete lack of evidence to prove the charge, the prevailing opinion ventures out in an attempt to decide other constitutional questions. It says:

'Accordingly, even if the accused action were within the scope of the statutory instrument, we would be required to assess the constitutional impact of its application, and we would have to hold that the statute cannot constitutionally be applied to punish petitioners' actions in the circumstances of this case.'

I have sometimes thought that this Court has gone entirely too far in refusing to decide constitutional questions on the ground that they should be avoided where possible. The journey here, however, goes entirely too far in the opposite direction. Apparently unsatisfied with or unsure of the 'no evidence' ground for reversing the convictions, the prevailing opinion goes on to state that the statute was used unconstitutionally in the circumstances of this case because it was 'deliberately and purposefully applied solely to terminate the reasonable, orderly, and limited exercise of the right to protest the unconstitutional segregation of a public facility.' First, I am constrained to say that this statement is wholly unsupported by the record in this case. There is simply no evidence in the record at all that petitioners were arrested because they were exercising the 'right to protest.' It is nevertheless said that this was the sole reason for the arrests. Moreover, the conclusion that the statute was unconstitutionally applied because it interfered with the petitioners' so-called protest establishes a completely new constitutional doctrine. In this case this new constitutional principle means that even though these petitioners did not want to use the Louisiana public library for library purposes, they had a constitutional right nevertheless to stay there over the protest of the librarians who had lawful authority to keep the library orderly for the use of people who wanted to use its books, its magazines, and its papers. But the principle espoused also has a far broader meaning. It means that the Constitution (the First and the Fourteenth Amendments) requires the custodians and supervisors of the public libraries in this country to stand helplessly by while protesting groups advocating one cause or another, stage 'sit-ins' or 'stand-ups' to dramatize their particular views on particular issues. And it should be remembered that if one group can take over libraries for one cause, other groups will assert the right to do so for causes which, while wholly legal, may not be so appealing to this Court. The States are thus paralyzed with reference to control of their libraries for library purposes, and I suppose that inevitably the next step will be to paralyze the schools. Efforts to this effect have already been made all over the country. Furthermore, here it seems to have made no difference whatever that the Audubon Regional Library, at least in this instance, satisfied its constitutional duty by giving these petitioners its services in full measure without regard to their race.

The constitutional doctrine that actually prevails in this Court today for the first time in its history rests at least in great part on the Court's interpretation of the First Amendment as carried into the States by the Fourteenth. This is the First Amendment which, as I have said in the past, is to me the very heart of our free government without which liberty and equality cannot exist. [6] But I have never thought and do not now think that the First Amendment can sustain the startling doctrine the prevailing opinion here creates. The First Amendment, I think protects speech, writings, and expression of views in any manner in which they can be legitimately and validly communicated. But I have never believed that it gives any person or group of persons the constitutional right to go wherever they want, whenever they please, without regard to the rights of private or public property or to state law. Indeed a majority of this Court said as much in Cox v. State of Louisiana, 379 U.S. 559, 574, 85 S.Ct. 476, 485, 13 L.Ed.2d 487. Though the First Amendment guarantees the right of assembly and the right of petition along with the rights of speech, press, and religion, it does not guarantee to any person the right to use someone else's property, even that owned by government and dedicated to other purposes, as a stage to express dissident ideas. The novel constitutional doctrine of the prevailing opinion nevertheless exalts the power of private nongovernmental groups to determine what use shall be made of governmental property over the power of the elected governmental officials of the States and the Nation.

The prevailing opinion seems to find some comfort in its very questionable assumption that in this case 'no claim can be made that use of the library by others was disturbed by the demonstration. Perhaps the time and method were carefully chosen with this in mind.' If this was the reason Saturday morning was selected, the only representative of CORE who testified was not aware of it. [7] No one of the petitioners has suggested such a thing. The lawyers for the petitioners have not. In fact at the trial responses of the sheriff to questions asked him by petitioners' lawyer indicate that there was another patron in the library at the time the petitioners 'sat in' or 'stood up' there. But even if there were no other patrons there in this instance, with this new constitutional doctrine rather shakily established, it is pretty clear that organized protesters will not overlook the chance to go into the libraries, and disturb those in there to learn, at a time when their 'demonstration' activities will obtain the most publicity.

The prevailing opinion laments the fact that the place where these events took place was 'a public library-a place dedicated to quiet, to knowledge, and to beauty.' I too lament this fact, and for this reason I am deeply troubled with the fear that powerful private groups throughout the Nation will read the Court's action, as I do-that is, as granting them a license to invade the tranquillity and beauty of our libraries whenever they have quarrel with some state policy which may or may not exist. It is an unhappy circumstance in my judgment that the group, which more than any other has needed a government of equal laws and equal justice, is now encouraged to believe that the best way for it to advance its cause, which is a worthy one, is by taking the law into its own hands from place to place and from time to time. Governments like ours were formed to substitute the rule of law for the rule of force. Illustrations may be given where crowds have gathered together peaceably by reason of extraordinarily good discipline reinforced by vigilant officers. 'Demonstrations' have taken place without any manifestations of force at the time. But I say once more that the crowd moved by noble ideals today can become the mob ruled by hate and passion and greed and violence tomorrow. If we ever doubted that, we know it now. The peaceful songs of love can become as stirring and provocative as the Marseillaise did in the days when a noble revolution gave way to rule by successive mobs until chaos set in. The holding in this case today makes it more necessary than ever that we stop and look more closely at where we are going.

I would affirm.


^1  There are three separate opinions which support reversal of the decision below. The opinion of my Brother FORTAS, which for convenience I will call the majority's 'prevailing' opinion, is joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE and my Brother DOUGLAS. My Brothers BRENNAN and WHITE each concur in the result of the prevailing opinion, but reach that result on different grounds.

^2  La.Rev.Stat. § 14:103.1 (Cum.Supp.1962).

^3  See my concurring opinion in Cox v. State of Louisiana, 379 U.S. 559, 578-580, 85 S.Ct. 468-470.

^4  A condition under which this conduct is punishable is that it be entered into 'with intent to provoke a breach of the peace, or under circumstances such that a breach of the peace may be occasioned thereby.' In the context of the Cox case relating to activity on the public streets this Court held this language unconstitutionally vague. But as I have pointed out above, the Court could not have meant that every disturbing the peace statute which contains this language is unconstitutional.

^5  The note describing the book he wanted which petitioner Brown gave Mrs. Reeves read, 'Wendall Arna, the Story of the Negro: Bontems.' This information apparently described no printed book. The book which was obtained from the state library for petitioners' use was The Story of the Negro, by Arna Bontemps.

^6  See my dissenting opinion in Milk Wagon Drivers Union, etc. v. Meadowmoor Dairies, Inc., 312 U.S. 287, 301-302, 61 S.Ct. 552, 558-559, 85 L.Ed. 836.

^7  Miss Feingold, task force worker for CORE and the State's first witness, testified on direct examination as follows:

'Q. Was there any particuar reason for these defendants going to the Library on a Sturday morning?

'A. You mean on a Saturday as opposed to any other day?

'Q. Yes?

'A. No, I don't.'

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).