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Brown v. Louisiana/Opinion of the Court

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United States Supreme Court

383 U.S. 131

Brown  v.  Louisiana

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


This is the fourth time in little more than four years that this Court has reviewed convictions by the Louisiana courts for alleged violations, in a civil rights context, of that State's breach of the peace statute. In the three preceding cases the convictions were reversed. Garner v. State of Louisiana, 368 U.S. 157, 82 S.Ct. 248, 7 L.Ed.2d 207, decided in December 1961, involved sit-ins by Negroes at lunch counters catering only to whites. Taylor v. State of Louisiana, 370 U.S. 154, 82 S.Ct. 1188, 8 L.Ed.2d 395, decided in June 1962, concerned a sit-in by Negroes in a waiting room at a but depot, reserved 'for whites only.' Cox v. State of Louisiana, 379 U.S. 536, 85 S.Ct. 453, 13 L.Ed.2d 471, decided in January 1965, involved the leader of some 2,000 Negroes who demonstrated in the vicinity of a courthouse and jail to protest the arrest of fellow demonstrators. In each of these cases the demonstration was orderly. In each, the purpose of the participants was to protest the denial to Negroes of rights guaranteed them by state and federal constitutions and to petition their governments for redress of grievances. In none was there evidence that the participants planned or intended disorder. In none were there circumstances which might have led to a breach of the peace chargeable to the protesting participants. [1]

In Garner the Court found the record utterly barren of evidence to support convictions under Title 14, Article 103(7) of the Louisiana Criminal Code, which then defined the crime of 'disturbing the peace' in specific detail. [2] The record contained no evidence of boisterous or disorderly actions or of 'passive conduct likely to cause a public disturbance.' 368 U.S., at 173 174, 82 S.Ct., at 257. In Taylor, which arose under the Louisiana statute as amended to read in its present form, see p. 138, infra, the Court in a per curiam opinion set aside the convictions despite evidence of 'restlessness' among the white onlookers. Finally, in Cox, the Court held that the fact would not permit application of Louisiana's breach of the peace statute, despite the large scale of the demonstrations and the fact that petitioner's speech occasioned 'grumbling' on the part of white onlookers. Petitioner and the demonstrators as a group, though 'well behaved,' were far from silent, 379 U.S., at 543, 546, 85 S.Ct., at 457, 459. [3] As an 'additional reason' why the conviction could not be sustained, the Court, citing Terminiello v. City of Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 69 S.Ct. 894, 93 L.Ed. 1131, and Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229, 83 S.Ct. 680, 9 L.Ed.2d 697, held that were the statute to be defined and applied as the Louisiana Supreme Court had done, it would be unconstitutional because the vagueness and breadth of the definition 'would allow persons to be punished merely for peacefully expressing unpopular views.' 379 U.S., at 551, 85 S.Ct., at 462. See Edwards v. South Carolina, supra, 372 U.S., at 237, 83 S.Ct., at 684.

Since the present case was decided under precisely the statute involved in Cox but before our decision in that case was announced, it might well be supposed that, without further ado, we would vacate and remand in light of Cox. But because the incident leading to the present convictions occurred in a public library and might be thought to raise materially different questions, we have heard argument and have considered the case in extenso.

The locus of the events was the Audubon Regional Library in the town of Clinton, Louisiana, Parish of East Feliciana. The front room of the building was used as a public library facility where patrons might obtain library services. It was a small room, containing two tables and one chair (apart from the branch assistant's desk and chairs), a stove, a card catalogue, and open book shelves. The room was referred to by the regional librarian, Mrs. Perkins, as 'the adult reading-room, the adult service-room.' The library permitted 'registered borrowers' to 'browse' among the books in the room or to borrow books. A 'registered borrower' was one who could produce an identification card showing that he was registered by the Audubon Regional Library. Other space in the building included the headquarters of the regional library.

The Audubon Regional Library is operated jointly by the Parishes of East Feliciana, West Feliciana, and St. Helena. It has three branches and two bookmobiles. The bookmobiles served 33 schools, both white and Negro, as well as 'individuals.' One of the bookmobiles was red, the other blue. The red bookmobile served only white persons. The blue bookmobile served only Negroes. It is a permissible inference that no Negroes used the branch libraries. [4]

The registration cards issued to Negroes were stamped with the word 'Negro.' A Negro in possession of such a card was entitled to borrow books, but only from the blue bookmobile. A white person could not receive service from the blue bookmobile. He would have to wait until the red bookmobile came around, or would have to go to a branch library.

This tidy plan was challenged on Saturday, March 7, 1964, at about 11:30 a.m. Five young Negro males, all residents of East or West Feliciana Parishes, went into the adult reading or service room of the Audubon Regional Library at Clinton. The branch assistant, Mrs. Katie Reeves, was alone in the room. She met the men 'between the tables' and asked if she 'could help.' Petitioner Brown requested a book, 'The Story of the Negro' by Arna Bontemps. Mrs. Reeves checked the card catalogue, ascertained that the Branch did not have the book, so advised Mr. Brown, and told him that she would request the book from the State Library, that he would be notified upon its receipt and that 'he could either pick it up or it would be mailed to him.' She told him that 'his point of service was a bookmobile or it could be mailed to him.' Mrs. Reeves testified that she expected that the men would then leave; they did not, and she asked them to leave. They did not. Petitioner Brown sat down and the others stood near him. They said nothing; there was no noise or boisterous talking. Mrs. Reeves called Mrs. Perkins, the regional librarian, who was in another room. Mrs. Perkins asked the men to leave. They remained.

Neither Mrs. Reeves nor Mrs. Perkins had called the sheriff, but in '10 to 15 minutes' from the time of the arrival of the men at the library, the sheriff and deputies arrived. The sheriff asked the Negroes to leave. They said they would not. The sheriff then arrested them. The sheriff had been notified that morning that members of the Congress of Racial Equality 'were going to sit-in' at the library. Ordinarily, the sheriff testified, CORE tells him when they are going to demonstrate or picket. The sheriff was standing at his 'place of business' when he saw 'these 5 colored males coming down the street.' He saw them enter the library. He called the jail to notify his deputies, and he reached the library immediately after the deputies got there. When the sheriff arrived, there was no noise, no disturbance. He testified that he arrested them 'for not leaving a public building when asked to do so by an officer.'

The library obtained the requested book and mailed it to Mr. Brown on March 28, 1964. An accompanying card said, 'You may return the book either by mail or to the Blue Bookmobile.' The reference to the color of the vehicle was obviously not designed to facilitate identification of the library vehicle. The blue bookmobile is for Negroes and for Negroes only.

In the course of argument before this Court, counsel for both the State and petitioners stated that the Clinton Branch was closed after the incident of March 7. Counsel for the State also advised the court that the use of cards stamped 'Negro' continues to be the practice of the regional library.

On March 25, 1964, Mr. Brown and his four companions were tried and found guilty. Brown was sentenced to pay $150 and costs, and in default thereof to spend 90 days in the parish jail. His companions were sentenced to $35 and costs, or 15 days in jail. The charge was that they had congregated together in the public library of Clinton, Louisiana, 'with the intent to provoke a breach of the peace and under circumstances such that a breach of the peace might be occasioned thereby' and had failed and refused 'to leave said premises when ordered to do so' by the librarian and by the sheriff.

The Louisiana breach of peace statute under which they were accused reads 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: (1) crowds or congregates with others * * * in * * * a * * * public place or building * * * and who fails or refuses to disperse and move on, or disperse or move on, when ordered so to do by any law enforcement officer * * * or any other authorized person * * * shall be guilty of disturbing the peace.' [5]

Under Louisiana law, these convictions were not appealable. See Garner v. Louisiana, supra, 368 U.S. at 161-162, 82 S.Ct. at 250-251, 7 L.Ed.2d 207. Petitioners sought discretionary review by the Louisiana Supreme Court, which denied their application, finding no error. This Court granted certiorari, 381 U.S. 901, 85 S.Ct. 1445, 14 L.Ed.2d 284, and we reverse.

We may briefly dispose of certain threshold problems. Petitioners cannot constitutionally be convicted merely because they did not comply with an order to leave the library. See Shuttlesworth v. City of Birmingham, 382 U.S. 87, 90-91, 86 S.Ct. 211, 213, 15 L.Ed.2d 176; Wright v. State of Georgia, 373 U.S. 284, 291-293, 83 S.Ct. 1240, 1245, 1246, 10 L.Ed.2d 349; Johnson v. State of Virginia, 373 U.S. 61, 83 S.Ct. 1053, 10 L.Ed.2d 195; cf. Cox v. State of Louisiana, supra, 379 U.S. at 579, 85 S.Ct. at 469 (separate opinion of Mr. Justice Black). The statute itself reads in the conjunctive; it requires both the defined breach of peace and an order to move on. Without reference to the statute, it must be noted that petitioners' presence in the library was unquestionably lawful. It was a public facility, open to the public. Negroes could not be denied access since white persons were welcome. Wright v. State of Georgia, supra, 373 U.S. at 292, 83 S.Ct. at 1245; Watson v. City of Memphis, 373 U.S. 526, 83 S.Ct. 1314, 10 L.Ed.2d 529; Johnson v. Virginia, supra. Petitioners' deportment while in the library was unexceptionable. They were neither loud, boisterous, obstreperous, indecorous nor impolite. There is no claim that, apart from the continuation-for ten or fifteen minutes-of their presence itself, their conduct provided a basis for the order to leave, or for a charge of breach of the peace.

We come, then, to the barebones of the problem. Petitioners, five adult Negro men, remained in the library room for a total of ten or fifteen minutes. The first few moments were occupied by a ritualistic request for service and a response. We may assume that the response constituted service, and we need not consider whether it was merely a gambit in the ritual. This ceremony being out of the way, the Negroes proceeded to the business in hand. They sat and stood in the room, quietly, as monuments of protest against the segregation of the library. They were arrested and charged and convicted of breach of the peace under a specific statute.

If we compare this situation with that in Garner, we must inevitably conclude that here, too, there is not the slightest evidence which would or could sustain the application of the statute to petitioners. The statute requires a showing either of 'intent to provoke a breach of the peace,' or of 'circumstances such that a breach of the peace may be occasioned' by the acts in question. There is not in this case the slightest hint of either. We need not be beguiled by the ritual of the request for a copy of 'The Story of the Negro.' We need not assume that petitioner Brown and his friends were in search of a book for night reading. We instead rest upon the manifest fact that they intended to and did stage a peaceful and orderly protest demonstration, with no 'intent to provoke a breach of the peace.' See Garner v. State of Louisiana, supra, 368 U.S. at 174, 82 S.Ct. at 257.

Nor were the circumstances such that a breach of the peace might be 'occasioned' by their actions, as the statute alternatively provides. The library room was empty, except for the librarians. There were no other patrons. There were no onlookers except for the vigilant and forewarned sheriff and his deputies. Petitioners did nothing and said nothing even remotely provocative. The danger, if any existed, was surely less than in the course of the sit-in at the 'white' lunch counters in Garner. And surely there was less danger that a breach of the peace might occur from Mrs. Katie Reeves and Mrs. Perkins in the adult reading room of the Clinton Branch Library than that disorder might result from the 'restless' white people in the bus depot waiting room in Taylor, or from the 100 to 300 'grumbling' white onlookers in Cox. But in each of these cases, this Court refused to countenance convictions under Louisiana's breach of the peace statute.

The argument of the State of Louisiana, however, is that the issue presented by this case is much simpler than our statement would indicate. The issue, asserts the State, is simply that petitioners were using the library room 'as a place in which to loaf or make a nuisance of themselves.' The State argues that the 'test'-the permissible civil rights demonstration-was concluded when petitioners entered the library, asked for service and were served. Having satisfied themselves, the argument runs, that they could get service, they should have departed. Instead, they simply sat there, 'staring vacantly,' and this was 'enough to unnerve a woman in the situation Mrs. Reeves was in.' This is a piquant version of the affair, but the matter is hardly to be decided on points. It was not a game. It could not be won so handily by the gesture of service to this particular request. There is no dispute that the library system was segregated, and no possible doubt that these petitioners were there to protest this fact. But even if we were to agree with the State's ingenuous characterization of the events, we would have to reverse. There was no violation of the statute which petitioners are accused of breaching; no disorder, no intent to provoke a breach of the peace and no circumstances indicating that a breach might be occasioned by petitioners' actions. The sole statutory provision invoked by the State contains not a word about occupying the reading room of a public library for more than 15 minutes, any more than it purports to punish the bare refusal to obey an unexplained command to withdraw from a public street, see Garner, supra, or public building. We can find nothing in the language of the statute, in fact, which would elevate the giving of cause for Mrs. Reeves' discomfort, however we may sympathize with her, to a crime against the State of Louisiana. Cf. Shuttlesworth v. City of Birmingham, 382 U.S. 87, 101, 86 S.Ct. 211, 218 (concurring opinion).

But there is another and sharper answer which is called for. We are here dealing with an aspect of a basic constitutional right the right under the First and Fourteenth Amendments guaranteeing freedom of speech and of assembly, and freedom to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. The Constitution of the State of Louisiana reiterates these guaranties. See Art. I, §§ 3, 5. As this Court has repeatedly stated, [6] these rights are no confined to verbal expression. They embrace appropriate types of action which certainly include the right in a peaceable and orderly manner to protest by silent and reproachful presence, in a place where the protestant has every right to be, the unconstitutional segregation of public facilities. [7] 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. See Edwards v. South Carolina, supra, 372 U.S. at 235, 83 S.Ct. at 683. The statute 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. Interference with this right, so exercised, by state action is intolerable under our Constitution. Wright v. State of Georgia, supra, 373 U.S. at 292, 83 S.Ct. at 1245.

It is an unhappy circumstance that the locus of these events was a public library-a place dedicated to quiet, to knowledge, and to beauty. It is a sad commentary that this hallowed place in the Parish of East Feliciana bore the ugly stamp of racism. It is sad, too, that it was a public library which, reasonably enough in the circumstances, was the stage for a confrontation between those discriminated against and the representatives of the offending parishes. Fortunately, the circumstances here were such that 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. Were it otherwise, a factor not present in this case would have to be considered. Here, there was no disturbance of others, no disruption of library activities, and no violation of any library regulations.

A State or its instrumentality may, of course, regulate the use of its libraries or other public facilities. But it must do so in a reasonable and nondiscriminatory manner, equally applicable to all and administered with equality to all. It may not do so as to some and not as to all. It may not provide certain facilities for whites and others for Negroes. And it may not invoke regulations as to use-whether they are ad hoc or general-as a pretext for pursuing those engaged in lawful, constitutionally protected exercise of their fundamental rights. Cf. Wright v. State of Georgia, supra, 373 U.S. at 293, 83 S.Ct. at 1246.

The decision below is reversed.

Reversed.

NotesEdit

^1  Participants in an orderly demonstration in a public place are not chargeable with the danger, unprovoked except by the fact of the constitutionally protected demonstration itself, that their critics might react with disorder or violence. See Cox v. State of Louisiana, supra, 379 U.S. at 551-552, 85 S.Ct. at 462-463; Wright v. State of Georgia, 373 U.S. 284, 293, 83 S.Ct. 1240, 1246, 10 L.Ed.2d 349; cf. Terminiello v. City of Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 69 S.Ct. 894, 93 L.Ed. 1131. Compare Feiner v. People of State of New York, 340 U.S. 315, 71 S.Ct. 303, 95 L.Ed. 267, where one speaker was haranguing 75 or 80 'restless' listeners; Chaplinsky v. State of New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 62 S.Ct. 766, 86 L.Ed. 1031 ('fighting words'); cf. Niemotko v. State of Maryland, 340 U.S. 268, 289, 71 S.Ct. 325, 336, 95 L.Ed. 267 (concurring opinion of Frankfurter, J.). See generally on the problem of the 'heckler's veto,' Kalven, The Negro and the First Amendment, pp. 140-160 (1965).

^2  The statute then read: 'Disturbing the peace is the doing of any of the following in such a manner as would foreseeably disturb or alarm the public:

'(1) Engaging in a fistic encounter; or

'(2) Using of any unnecessarily loud, offensive, or insulting language; or

'(3) Appearing in an intoxicated condition; or

'(4) Engaging in any act in a violent and tumultuous manner by any three or more persons; or

'(5) Holding of an unlawful assembly; or

'(6) Interruption of any lawful assembly of people; or

'(7) Commission of any other act in such a manner as to unreasonably disturb or alarm the public.'

^3  While it was not disputed that the demonstration was 'orderly and well-controlled,' the demonstrators clapped and sang and petitioner spoke in protest of arrests of certain other civil rights demonstrators. In addition to the breach of the peace charge, Cox was charged with obstructing public passageways and with demonstrating near a courthouse. Convictions on these grounds were also reversed. See 379 U.S. 536, 559, 85 S.Ct. 453, 466.

^4  The inference finds support in testimony both of the sheriff and of Mrs. Laura Spears, a witness for the defense who was employed as the assistant in charge of the blue bookmobile.

^5  La.Rev.Stat. § 14:103.1 (Cum.Supp.1962).

^6  See, e.g., N.A.A.C.P. v. Button, 371 U.S. 415, 428-431, 83 S.Ct. 328, 335-337, 9 L.Ed.2d 405; Garner v. Louisiana, supra, 368 U.S. at 201, 82 S.Ct. at 271 (separate opinion of Mr. Justice Harlan); N.A.A.C.P. v. State of Alabama, 357 U.S. 449, 460-463, 78 S.Ct. 1163, 1170-1172, 2 L.Ed.2d 1488; Stromberg v. People of State of California, 283 U.S. 359, 369, 51 S.Ct. 532, 535, 75 L.Ed. 1117. See Kalven, op. cit. supra, n. 1, at 129-138.

^7  Cf. Wright v. State of Georgia, supra.

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).