Pennekamp v. Florida/Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

328 U.S. 331

Pennekamp  v.  Florida

 Argued: Feb. 7, 1946. --- Decided: June 3, 1946

This proceeding brings here for review a judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida, 22 So.2d 875, which affirmed a judgment of guilt in contempt of the Circuit Court of Dade County, Florida, on a citation of petitioners by that Circuit Court.

The individual petitioner was the associate editor of the Miami Herald, a newspaper of general circulation, published in Dade County, Florida, and within the jurisdiction of the trial court. The corporate petitioner was the publisher of the Miami H rald. Together petitioners were responsible for the publication of two editorials charged by the citation to be contemptuous of the Circuit Court and its judges in that they were unlawfully critical of the administration of criminal justice in certain cases then pending before the Court.

Certiorari was granted, 66 S.Ct. 146, to review petitioners' contention that the editorials did not present 'a clear and present danger of high imminence to the administration of justice by the court's or judges who were criticized and therefore the judgment of contempt was invalid as violative of the petitioners' right of free expression in the press. The importance of the issue in the administration of justice at this time in view of this Court's decision in Bridges v. California, 314 U.S. 252, 62 S.Ct. 190, 86 L.Ed. 192, 159 A.L.R. 1346, three years prior to this judgment in contempt, is apparent.

Bridges v. California fixed reasonably well marked limits around the power of courts to punish newspapers and others for comments upon or criticism of pending litigation. The case placed orderly operation of courts as the primary and dominant requirement in the administration of justice. 314 U.S. at pages 263, 265, 266, 62 S.Ct. at pages 194, 195, 86 L.Ed. 192, 159 A.L.R. 1346. This essential right of the courts to be free of intimidation and coercison was held to be consonant with a recognition that freedom of the press must be allowed in the broadest scope compatible with the supremacy of order. A theoretical determinant of the limit for open discussion was adopted from experience with other adjustments of the conflict between freedom of expression and maintenance of order. This was the clear and present danger rule. The evil consequence of comment must be 'extremely serious and the degree of imminence extremely high before utterances can be punished.' 314 U.S. at page 263, 62 S.Ct. at page 194, 86 L.Ed. 192, 159 A.L.R. 1346. It was, of course, recognized that this formula, as would any other, inevitably had the vice of uncertainty, 314 U.S. at page 261, 62 S.Ct. at page 193, 86 L.Ed. 192, 159 A.L.R. 1346, but it was expected that from a decent self-restraint on the part of the press and from the formula's repeated application by the courts standards of permissible comment would emerge which would guarantee the courts against interference and allow fair play to the good influences of open discussion. As a step toward the marking of the line, we held that the publications there involved were within the permissible limits of free discussion.

In the Bridges case the clear and present danger rule was applied to the stated issue of whether the expressions there under consideration prevented 'fair judicial trials free from coercion or intimidation.' 314 U.S. at page 259, 62 S.Ct. at page 192, 86 L.Ed. 192, 159 A.L.R. 1346. There was, of course, no question as to the power to punish for disturbances and disorder in the court room. 314 U.S. at page 266, 62 S.Ct. at page 195, 86 L.Ed. 192, 159 A.L.R. 1346. The danger to be guarded against is the 'substantive evil' sought to be prevented. 314 U.S. at pages 261, 262, 263, 62 S.Ct. at pages 193, 194, 86 L.Ed. 192, 159 A.L.R. 1346. In the Bridges case that 'substantive evil' was primarily the 'disorderly and unfair administration of justice.' 314 U.S. at pages 270, 271, 278, 62 S.Ct. at pages 197, 201, 86 L.Ed. 192, 159 A.L.R. 1346. [1]

The Constitution has imposed upon this Court final authority to determine the meaning and application of those words of that instrument which require interpretation to resolve judicial issues. With that responsibility, we are co pelled to examine for ourselves the statements in issue and the circumstances under which they were made to see whether or not they do carry a threat of clear and present danger to the impartiality and good order of the courts or whether they are of a character which the principles of the First Amendment, as adopted by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, protect. [2] When the highest court of a state has reached a determination upon such an issue, we give most respectful attention to its reasoning and conclusion but its authority is not final. Were it otherwise the constitutional limits of free expression in the Nation would vary with state lines. [3]

While there was a division of the Court in the Bridges case as to whether some of the public expressions by editorial comment transgressed the boundaries of a free press and as to the phrasing of the test, there was unanimous recognition that California's power to punish for contempt was limited by this Court's interpretation of the extent of protection afforded by the First Amendment. Bridges v. California, supra, 314 U.S. at page 297, 62 S.Ct. at page 210, 86 L.Ed. 192, 159 A.L.R. 1346. Whether the threat to the impartial and orderly administration of justice must be a clear and present or a grave and immediate danger, a real and substantial threat, one which is close and direct or one which disturbs the court's sense of fairness depends upon a choice of words. Under any one of the phrases, reviewing courts are brought in cases of this type to appraise the comment on a balance between the desirability of free discussion and the necessity for fair adjudication, free from interruption of its processes.

The editorials of November 2d and 7th, 1944, which caused the court to issue the citation are set out below. [4] Accompanying the first editorial was a cartoon which held up the law to public obloquy. It caricatured a court by a robed compliant figure as a judge on the bench tossing aside formal charges to hand a document, marked 'Defendant dismissed,' to a powerful figure close at his left arm and of an intentionally drawn criminal type. At the rightof the bench, a futile individual, right of the bench, a futile individual,

The citation charges that the editorials 'did reflect upon and impugn the integrity of said Court and the Judges thereof in imputing that the Judges of said Court 'do recognize and accept, even go out to find, every possible technicality of the law to protect the defendant, to block, thwart, hinder, embarrass and nullify prosecution,' which said acts by you tend to create a distrust for said court and the judges thereof in the minds of the people of this county and state and tend to prevent and prejudice a fair and impartial action of the said Court and the Judges thereof in respect to the said pending case(s).'

After setting out details of alleged willful withholding and suppression of the whole truth in the publications, the citation furthe charges that

'you, by said cartoon and editorial, have caused to be represented unto the public that concerning the cases of (A) the eight indictments for rape, (B) the said Brook Club case, and (C) the Teepee Club case, that the Judges of this Court (had not) fairly and impartially heard and decided the matters in said editorial mentioned and have thereby represented unto the general public that notwithstanding the great public trust vested in the Judges of this Court that they have not discharged their duties honorably and fairly in respect to said pending cases as hereinbefore set forth, all of which tends to obstruct and interfere with the said Judges as such in fairly and impartially administering justice and in the discharging of their duties in conformity with the true principles which you have so properly recognized in the forepart of said editorial above quoted as being incumbent upon them and each of them; * * *'

Petitioners were required to show cause why they should not be held in contempt.

Petitioners answered that the publications were legitimate criticism and comment within the federal guaranties of free press and created no clear and present danger to the administration of justice. They sought to justify the publications by stating in their return to the rule that the facts stated in the editorials were correct, that two of the cases used as examples were not pending when the comments were made, since orders of dismissal had been previously entered by the Circuit Court, and that they as editors

'had the right if not the duty openly and forcefully to discuss these conditions to the end that these evils that are profoundly disturbing to the citizens of this county, might be remedied. The publications complained of did nothing more than discuss the generally recognized weakness and breakdown in the system of law enforcement and call for its improvement.'

It is not practicable to comment at length on each of the challenged items. To make our decision as clear as possible, we shall refer in detail only to the comments concerning the 'Rape Cases.' These we think fairly illustrate the issues and are the most difficult comments for the petitioners to defend.

'This Week the people, through their grand jury, brought into court eight indictments for rape. Judge Paul D. Barns agreed with the defense that the indictments were not properly drawn. Back they went to the grant jury for re-presentation to the court.'

We shall assume that the statement, 'judicial instance and interpretative procedure * * * even go out to find, every possible technicalit of the law to protect the defendant * * * and nullify prosecution,' refers to the quashing of the rape indictments as well as other condemned steps. The comment of the last two paragraphs evidently includes these dismissals as so-called legal technicalities. See Note 4.

The citation charged that the prosecuting officer in open court agreed that the indictments were so defective as to make reindictment advisable. Reindictments were returned the next day and before the editorial. It was charged that these omissions were a wanton withholding of the full truth.

As to this charge, the petitioners made this return:

'That as averred in the citation, a motion was made to quash the indictment in Case 856, the ruling upon which would control in the other cases mentioned. Whereupon the representative of the State Attorney's Office stated in effect that he believed the original indictment was in proper form, but to eliminate any question he would have these defendants immediately re-indicted by the Grand Jury which was still then in session. And thereupon, the Judge of said Court did sustain the motion to quash with respect to Case No. 856.

The record of the Criminal Division of the Circuit Court, set out in the findings of fact at the hearing on the citation in contempt, shows that in case No. 856 the court upheld the defendants' motion to quash 'with the approval of the Assistant State Attorney' and quashed the remaining indictments on his recommendation. Reindictment of the accused on the next day, prompt arraignment and setting for trial also appears. We accept the record as conclusive of the facts.

We read the Circuit Court's judgment to find that the comment on the Rape Cases contained only 'half-truths,' that it did not 'fairly report the proceedings' of the court, that it contained 'misinformation.' The judgment said:

'To report on court proceedings is a voluntary undertaking but when undertaken the publisher who fails to fairly report does so at his own peril.

'We find the facts recited and the charges made in the citiation to be true and well founded; * * *'

This finding included the fact that reindictments were then pending in the Rape Cases. Defendant's assignment of error challenged the ruling that the matters referred to in the editorials were pending and the Supreme Court of Florida ruled that the cases were pending. 22 So.2d at page 883:

'We also agree that publications about a case that is closed no matter how scandalous, are not punishable as contempt. This is the general rule but the Florida Statute is more liberal than the rule.' Cf. Florida Statutes 1941, § 38.23 and § 932.03, F.S.A.; see also 22 So.2d at page 886.

In Bridges v. California, 314 U.S. 252, 271-278, dissent 297 302, 62 S.Ct. 190, 197-201, dissent 210-213, 86 L.Ed. 192, 159 A.L.R. 1346, this Court looked upon cases as pending following completed interlocutory actions of the courts but awaiting other steps. In one instance it was sentence after verdict. In another, a motion for a new trial.

Pennekamp was fined $250 and the corporation $1,000.00.

The Supreme Court of Florida restated the facts as to the Rape Cases from the record. 22 So. 2d at page 881. It then reached a conclusion as to all of the charges and so as to the Rape Cases in the words set out below. [5] After further discussion of the facts, the Court said, id., at page 883:

'In the light of this factual recitation, it is utter folly to suggest that the object of these publications was other than to abase and destroy the efficiency of the court.'

To focus attention on the critical issue, we quote below from the decision of the Supreme Court of Florida certain excerpts which we believe fairly illustrate its position as to the applicable law. [6]

From the editorials, the explanations of the petitioners and the records of the court, it is clear that the full truth in regard to the quashing of the indictments was not published. We agree with the Supreme Court that the Rape Cases were pending at the time of the editorials. We agree that the editorials did not state objectively the attitude of the judges. We accept the statement of the Supreme Court that under Florida law, 'There was no judgment that could have been entered in any of them except the one that was entered.' 22 So.2d at page 882. And, although we may feel that this record scarcely justifies the harsh inference that the truth was willfully or wantonly or recklessly withheld from the public or that the motive behind the publication was to abase and destroy the efficiency of the courts, we may accept in this case that conclusion of the Florida courts upon intent and motive as a determination of fact. [7] While the ultimate power is here to ransack the record for facts in constitutional controversies, we are accustomed to adopt the result of the state courts' examination. [8] It is the findings of the state courts on undisputed facts or the undisputed facts themselves which ordinarily furnish the basis for our appraisal of claimed violations of federal constitutional rights. [9]

The acceptance of the conclusion of a state as to the facts of a situation leaves open to this Court the determination of federal constitutional rights in the setting of those facts. [10] When the Bridges case was here, there was necessarily involved a determination by the California state court that all of the editorials had, at least, a tendency to interfere with the fair administration of criminal justice in pending cases in a court of that state. Yet this Court was unanimous in saying that two of those editorials had no such impact upon a court as to justify a conviction of contempt in the face of the principles of the First Amendment. We must, therefore, weigh the right of free speech which is claimed by the petitioners against the danger of the coercion and intimidation of courts in the factual situation presented by this record.

Free discussion of the problems of society is a cardinal principle of Americanism-a principle which all are zealous to preserve. [11] Discussion that follows the termination of a case may be inadequate to emphasize the danger to public welfare of supposedly wrongful judicial conduct. [12] It does not follow that public comment of every character upon pending trials or legal proceedings may be as free as a similar comment after complete disposal of the litigation. Between the extremes there are areas of discussion which an understanding writer will appraise in the light of the effect on himself and on the public of creating a clear and present danger to the fair and orderly judicial administration. Courts must have power to protect the interests of prisoners and litigants before them from unseemly efforts to pervert judicial action. In the borderline instances where it is difficult to say upon which side the alleged offense falls, we think the specific freedom of public comment should weigh heavily against a possible tendency to influence pending cases. Freedom of discussion should be given the widest range compatible with the essential requirement of the fair and orderly administration of justice.

While a disclaimer of intention does not purge a contempt, we may at this point call attention to the sworn answer of petitioners that their purpose was not to influence the court. An excerpt appears below. [13] For circumstances to create a clear and present danger to judicial administration, a solidity of evidence should be required which it would be difficult to find in this record. Compare Baumgartner v. United States, 322 U.S. 665, 670, 64 S.Ct. 1240, 1243, 88 L.Ed. 1525; Schneiderman v. United States, 320 U.S. 118, 63 S.Ct. 1333, 87 L.Ed. 1796.

The comments were made about judges of courts of general jurisdiction-judges selected by the people of a populous and educated community. They concerned the attitude of the judges toward those who were charged with crime, not comments on evidence or rulings during a jury trial. Their effect on juries that might eventually try the alleged offenders against the criminal laws of Florida is too remote for discussion. Comment on pending cases may affect judges differently. It may influence some judges more than others. Some are of a more sensitive fiber than their colleagues. The law deals in generalities and external standards and cannot depend on the varying degrees of moral courage or stability in the face of criticism which individual judges may possess any more than it generally can depend on the personal equations or individual idiosyncrasies of the tort-feasor. The Germanic, 196 U.S. 589, 596, 25 S.Ct. 317, 318, 49 L.E . 610; Arizona Employers' Liability Cases, 250 U.S. 400, 422, 432, 39 S.Ct. 553, 556, 560, 63 L.Ed. 1058, 6 A.L.R. 1537. We are not willing to say under the circumstances of this case that these editorials are a clear and present danger to the fair administration of justice in Florida. Cf. Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697, 714, 715, 51 S.Ct. 625, 630, 631, 75 L.Ed. 1357.

What is meant by clear and present danger to a fair administration of justice? No definition could give an answer. Certainly this criticism of the judge's inclinations or actions in these pending nonjury proceedings could not directly affect such administration. This criticism of his actions could not affect his ability to decide the issues. Here there is only criticism of judicial action already taken, although the cases were still pending on other points or might be revived by rehearings. For such injuries, when the statements amount to defamation, a judge has such remedy in damages for libel as do other public servants.

It is suggested, however, that even though his intellectual processes cannot be affected by reflections on his purposes, a judge may be influenced by a desire to placate the accusing newspaper to retain public esteem and secure reelection presumably at the cost of unfair rulings against an accused. In this case too many fine-drawn assumptions against the independence of judicial action must be made to call such a possibility a clear and present danger to justice. For this to follow, there must be a judge of less than ordinary fortitude without friends or support or a powerful and vindictive newspaper bent upon a rule or ruin policy, and a public unconcerned with or uninterested in the truth or the protection of their judicial institutions. If, as the Florida courts have held and as we have assumed, the petitioners deliberately distorted the facts to abase and destroy the efficiency of the court, those misrepresentations with the indicated motives manifested themselves in the language employed by petitioners in their editorials. The Florida courts see in this objectionable language an open effort to use purposely the power of the press to destroy without reason the reputation of judges and the competence of courts. This is the clear and present danger they fear to justice. Although we realize that we do not have the same close relations with the people of Florida that is enjoyed by the Florida courts, we have no doubt that Floridians in general would react to these editorials in substantially the same way as citizens of other parts of our common country.

As we have pointed out, we must weigh the impact of the words against the protection given by the principles of the First Amendment, as adopted by the Fourteenth, to public comment on pending court cases. We conclude that the danger under this record to fair judicial administration has not the clearness and immediacy necessary to close the door of permissible public comment. When that door is closed, it closes all doors behind it.


Mr. Justice JACKSON took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER concurring.

On the basis of two editorials and a cartoon, the Circuit Court of Florida for the County of Dade found the publisher of the Miami Herald and one of its editors guilty of contempt of court. [1] The editor, Pennekamp, was fined $250 and the Publishing Company, $1,000. Deeming Bridges v. California, 314 U.S. 252, 62 S.Ct. 190, 86 L.Ed. 192, 159 A.L.R. 1346, not controlling, the Supreme Court of Florida, with two judges dissenting, sustained the convictions. 22 So.2d 875.

In the Bridges case this Court recently canvassed constitutional aspects of contempt of court by publication. But it was hardly to be expected that other problems in the large field within which the Bridges case moved would not recur. This Court sits to interpret, in appropriate judicial controversies, a Constitution which in its Bill of Rights formulates the conditions of a democracy. But democracy is the least static form of society. Its basis is reason not authority. Formulas embodying vague and uncritical generalizations offer tempting opportunities to evade the need for continuous thought. But so long as men want freedom they resist this temptation. Such formulas are most beguiling and most mischievous when contending claims are those not of right and wrong but of two rights, each highly important to the well-being of society. Seldom is there available a pat formula that adequately analyzes such a problem, least of all solves it. Certainly no such formula furnishes a ready answer to the question now here for decision or even exposes its true elements. The precise issue is whether, and to what extent, a State can protect the administration of justice by authorizing prompt punishment, without the intervention of a jury, of publications out of court that may interfere with a court's disposition of pending litigation.

The decision in the Bridges case did not explicitly deny to the States the right to protect the judicial process from interference by means of a publication bearing on a pending litigation. The atmosphere and emanations of the Court's opinion, however, were calculated to sanction anything to be said or written outside the courtroom even though it may hurt or embarrass the just outcome of a proceeding. But in a series of decisions which presented most sharply the constitutional extent of freedom of speech, this Court had held that the Constitution did not allow absolute freedom of expression-a freedom unrestricted by the duty to respect other needs fulfillment of which make for the dignity and security of man. Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47, 39 S.Ct. 247, 63 L.Ed. 470; Frohwerk v. United States, 249 U.S. 204, 39 S.Ct. 249, 63 L.Ed. 561; Debs v. United States, 249 U.S. 211, 39 S.Ct. 252, 63 L.Ed. 566.

No Justice thought more deeply about the nature of a free society or was more zealous to safeguard its conditions by the most abundant regard for civil liberty than Mr. Justice Holmes. He left no doubt that judicial protection of freedom of utterance is necessarily qualified by the requirements of the Constitution as an entirety for the maintenance of a free society. It does an illservice to the author of the most quoted judicial phrases regarding freedom of speech, to make him the victim of a tendency which he fought all his life, whereby phrases are made to do service for critical anaylsis by being turned into dogma. 'It is one of the misfortunes of the law that ideas become encysted in phrases and thereafter for a long time cease to provoke further analysis.' Holmes, J., dissenting, in Hyde v. United States, 225 U.S. 347, 384, at page 391, 32 S.Ct. 793, 808, at page 811, 56 L.Ed. 1114, Ann.Cas.1914A, 614. Words which 'are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent,' Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47, 52, 39 S.Ct. 247, 249, 63 L.Ed. 470, speak their own condemnation. But it does violence to the juristic philosophy and the judicial practice of Mr. Justice Holmes to assume that an using the phrase 'a clear and present danger' he was expressing even remotely an absolutist test or had in mind a danger in the abs ract. He followed the observation just quoted by the emphatic statement that the question is one 'of proximity and degree,' as he conceived to be most questions in connection with the large, undefined rights guaranteed by the Constitution. And Mr. Justice Brandeis, co-architect of the great constitutional structure of civil liberties, also recognized that 'the permissible curtailment of free speech is * * * one of degree; and because it is a question of degree the field in which the jury may exercise its judgment is necessarily a wide one.' Schaefer v. United States, 251 U.S. 466, 482, at page 483, 40 S.Ct. 259, 264, at page 265, 64 L.Ed. 360 (dissenting). If Mr. Justice Brandeis' constitutional philosophy means anything, it is clear beyond peradventure that he would not deny to a State, exercising its judgment as to the mode by which speech may be curtailed by punishment subsequent to its utterance, a field less wide than that which he permitted a jury in a federal court.

'Clear and present danger' was never used by Mr. Justice Holmes to express a technical legal doctrine or to convey a formula for adjudicating cases. It was a literary phrase not to be distorted by being taken from its context. In its setting it served to indicate the importance of freedom of speech to a free society but also to emphasize that its exercise must be compatible with the preservation of other freedoms essential to a democracy and guaranteed by our Constitution. When those other attributes of a democracy are threatened by speech the Constitution does not deny power to the States to curb it. 'The clear and present danger' to be arrested may be danger short of a threat as comprehensive and vague as a threat to the safety of the Republic or 'the American way of life.' Neither Mr. Justice Holmes nor Mr. Justice Brandeis nor this Court ever suggested in all the cases that arose in connection with the First World War, that only imminent threats to the immediate security of the country would authorize courts to sustain legislation curtailing utterance. Such forces of destruction are of an order of magnitude which courts are hardly designed to counter. 'The clear and present danger' with which its two great judicial exponents were concerned, was a clear and present danger that utterance would 'bring about the * * * evils' which Congress sought and 'has a right to prevent.' Schenck v. United States, supra. Among 'the substantive evils' with which legislation may deal is the hampering of a court in a pending controversy, because the fair administration of justice is one of the chief tests of a true democracy. And since men equally devoted to the vital importance of freedom of speech may fairly differ in an estimate of this danger in a particular case, the field in which a State 'may exercise its judgment is necessarily a wide one.' Therefore, every time a situation like the present one comes here the precise problem before us is to determine whether the State court went beyond the allowable limits of judgment in holding that conduct which has been punished as a contempt was reasonably calculated to endanger a State's duty to administer impartial justice in a pending controversy.

Without a free press there can be no free society. [2] Freedom of the press, however, is not an end in itself but a means to the end of a free society. The scope and nature of the constitutional protection of freedom of speech must be viewed in that light and in that light applied. The independence of the judiciary is no less a means to the end of a free society, and the proper functioning of an independent judiciary puts the freedom of the press in its proper perspective. For the judiciary cannot function properly if what the press does is reasonably calculated to disturb the judicial judgment in its duty and capacity to act solely on the basis of what is before the court. A judiciary is not independent unless courts of justice are enabled to administer law by absence of pres ure from without, whether exerted through the blandishments of reward or the menace of disfavor. In the noble words, penned by John Adams, of the First Constitution of Massachusetts: 'It is essential to the preservation of the rights of every individual, his life, liberty, property, and character, that there be an impartial interpretation of the laws, and administration of justice. It is the right of every citizen to be tried by judges as free, impartial and independent as the lot of humanity will admit.' [3] A free press is not to be preferred to an independent judiciary, nor an independent judiciary to a free press. Neither has primacy over the other; both are indispensable to a free society. The freedom of the press in itself presupposes an independent judiciary through which that freedom may, if necessary, be vindicated. And one of the potent means for assuring judges their independence is a free press.

A free press is vital to a democratic society because its freedom gives it power. Power in a democracy implies responsibility in its exercise. No institution in a democracy, either governmental or private, can have absolute power. [4] Nor can the limits of power which enforce responsibility be finally determined by the limited power itself. See Carl L. Becker, Freedom and Responsibility in the American Way of Life (1945). In plain English, freedom carries with it responsibility even for the press; freedom of the press is not a freedom from responsibility for its exercise. Most State constitutions expressly provide for liability for abuse of the press's freedom. That there was such legal liability was so taken for granted by the framers of the First Amendment that it was not spelled out. Responsibility for its abuse was imbedded in the law. [5] The First Amendment safeguarded the right.

These are generalities. But they are generalities of the most practical importance in achieving a proper adjustment between a free press and an independent judiciary.

Especially in the administration of the criminal law-that most awesome aspect of government-society needs independent courts of justice. This means judges free from control by the executive, free from all ties with political interests, free from all fears of reprisal or hopes of reward. The safety of society and the security of the innocent alike depend upon wise and impartial criminal justice. Misuse of its machinery may undermine the safety of the State; its misuse may deprive the individual of all that makes a free man's life dear. [6]

Criticism therefore must not feel cramped, even criticism of the administration of criminal justice. Weak characters ought not to be judges, and the scope allowed to the press for society's sake may assume that they are not. No judge fit to be one is likely to be influenced consciously except by what he sees and hears in court and by what is judicially appropriate for his deliberations. However, judges are also human, and we know better than did our forbears how powerful is the pull of the unconscious and how treacherous the rational process. While the ramparts of reason have been found to be more fragile than the Age of Enlightenment had supposed, the means for arousing passion and confusing judgment have been reinforced. And since judges, however, stalwart, are human, the delicate task of administering justice ought not to be made unduly difficult by irresponsible print.

The English bench is justly noted for its sturdiness, and it was no weak-kneed judge who recently analyzed the mischief of exposing even the hardiest nature to extraneous influence: '* * * I think it is a fallacy to say or to assume that the presiding judge is a person who cannot be affected by outside information. He is a human being, and while I do not suggest that it is likely that any judge, as the result of information which had been improperly conveyed to him would give a decision which otherwise he would not have g ven, it is embarrassing to a judge that he should be informed of matters which he would much rather not hear and which make it much more difficult for him to do his duty. To repeat the words I have already read from the judgment of Wills, J., in Rex v. Parke, (1903) 2 K.B. 432: 'The reason why the publication of articles like those with which we have to deal is treated as a contempt of court is because their tendency and sometimes their object is to deprive the court of the power of doing that which is the end for which it exists-namely, to administer justice duly, impartially, and with reference solely to the facts judicially brought before it.' * * * I venture to think that no judge with long criminal experience will fail to be able to recall instances in which the publication of matters such as that to which I have referred has had the effect of making the task of a judge extremely difficult and no one has the right to publish matter which will have that effect.' Humphreys, J., in Rex v. Davies, (1945) 1 K.B. 435, 442-43. The observations of another judge in the same case bear quoting: '* * * jurors are not the only people whose minds can be affected by prejudice. One of the evils of inadmissible matter being disseminated is that no one can tell what effect a particular piece of information may have on his mind. Why, as my Lord has asked, and I can think of no better word, should a judge be 'embarrassed' by having matters put into his mind, the effect of which it is impossible to estimate or assess? As an illustration of this proposition, the Court of Criminal Appeal has expressed not once but many times, its thorough disapproval of evidence which is sometimes given by police officers at the end of a case when a man has been convicted. On such occasions all sorts of allegations are frequently made against a man's character, sometimes in the nature of hearsay and sometimes not supported by evidence at all. What is the ground for the disapproval of the Court of Criminal Appeal regarding such statements? It can only be that the judge who, after hearing the statements, has to pronounce sentence, may quite unconsciously, have his judgment influenced by matters which he has no right to consider. * * * Not all defamatory matter can amount to contempt of court * * * whether defamatory matter amounts to contempt in any particular case is a question in each case of fact, of degree and of circumstances.' Oliver, J., in Rex v. Davies, supra, (1945) 1 K.B. at pages 445, 446. Cf. Parashuram Detaram Shamdasani v. King-Emperor, (1945) A.C. 264. To deny that bludgeoning or poisonous comment has power to influence, or at least to disturb, the task of judging is to play make-believe and to assume that men in gowns are angels. The psychological aspects of this problem become particularly pertinent in the case of elected judges with short tenure.

'Trial by newspaper,' like all catch phrases, may be loosely used but it summarizes an evil influence upon the administration of criminal justice in this country. Its absence in England, at least its narrow confinement there, furnishes an illuminating commentary. It will hardly be claimed that the press is less free in England than in the United States. Nor will any informed person deny that the administration of criminal justice is more effective there than here. This is so despite the commonly accepted view that English standards of criminal justice are more civilized, or, at the least, that recognized standards of fair conduct in the prosecution of crime are better observed. Thus, 'the third degree' is not unjustly called 'the American method.' [7] This is not the occasion to enlarge upon the reasons for the greater effectiveness of English criminal justice but it may be confidently asserted that it is more effective partly because its standards are so civilized. [8] There are those who will resent such a statement as praise of another country and dispraise of one's own. What it really means is hat one covets for his own country a quality of public conduct not surpassed elsewhere.

Certain features of American criminal justice have long been diagnosed by those best qualified to judge as serious and remediable defects. On the other hand, some mischievous accompaniments of our system have been so pervasive that they are too often regarded as part of the exuberant American spirit. Thus, 'trial by newspapers' has sometimes been explained as a concession to our peculiar interest in criminal trials. Such interest might be an innocent enough pastime were it not for the fact that the stimulation of such curiosity by the press and the response to such stimulated interest have not failed to cause grievous tragedies committed under the forms of law. Of course trials must be public and the public have a deep interest in trials. The public's legitimate interest, however, precludes distortion of what goes on inside the courtroom, dissemination of matters that do not come before the court, or other trafficking with truth intended to influence proceedings or inevitably calculated to disturb the course of justice. The atmosphere in a courtroom may be subtly influenced from without. [9] See dissenting opinion of Mr. Justice Holmes, in Frank v. Mangum, 237 U.S. 309, 347, at page 349, 35 S.Ct. 582, 595, at page 596, 59 L.Ed. 969. Cases are too often tried in newspapers before they are tried in c urt, and the cast of characters in the newspaper trial too often differs greatly from the real persons who appear at the trial in court and who may have to suffer its distorted consequences. [10]

Newspapers and newspaper men themselves have acknowledged these practices, deplored their evils, and urged reform. [11] See The Attorney General's Conference on Crime (1934) 82-111. One of the most zealous claimants of the prerogatives of the press, the Chicago Tribune, has even proposed legal means for the correction of these inroads upon the province of criminal justice: 'The Tribune advocates and will accept drastic restriction of this preliminary publicity. The penetration of the police system and the courts by journalists must stop. With such a law there would be no motivation for it. Though such a law wil be revolutionary in American journalism, though it is not financially advisable for newspapers, it is still necessary. Restrictions must come.' [12]

It is not for me to express approval of these views, still less, judgment on the constitutional issues that would arise if they were translated into legislation. But they are relevant to an understanding of the nature of our problem. They serve also to emphasize that the purpose of the Constitution was not to erect the press into a privileged institution but to protect all persons in their right to print what they will as well as to utter it. '* * * the liberty of the press is no greater and no less than the liberty of every subject of the Queen,' Regina v. Gray, (1900) 2 Q.B. 36, 40, and, in the United States, it is no greater than the liberty of every citizen of the Republic. The right to undermine proceedings in court is not a special prerogative of the press.

The press does have the right, which is its professional function, to criticize and to advocate. The whole gamut of public affairs is the domain for fearless and critical comment, and not least the administration of justice. But the public function which belongs to the press makes it an obligation of honor to exercise this function only with the fullest sense of responsibility. Without such a lively sense of responsibility a free press may readily become a powerful instrument of injustice. [13] It should not and may not attempt to influence judges or juries before they have made up their minds on pending controversies. Such a restriction, which merely bars the operation of extraneous influence specifically directed to a concrete case, in no wise curtails the fullest discussion of public issues generally. It is not suggested that generalized discussion of a particular topic should be forbidden, or run the hazard of contempt proceedings, merely because some phases of such a general topic may be involved in a pending litigation. It is the focused attempt to influence a particular decision that may have a corroding effect on the process of justice, and it is such comment that justifies the corrective process.

The administration of law, particularly that of the criminal law, normally operates in an environment that is not universal or even general but individual. The distinctive circumstances of a particular case determine whether law is fairly administered in that case, through a disinterested judgment on the basis of what has been formally presented inside the courtroom on explicit considerations, instead of being subjected to extraneous factors psychologically calculated to disturb the exercise of an impartial and equitable judgment.

If men, including judges and journalists, were angels, there would be no problems of contempt of court. Angelic judges would be undisturbed by extraneous influences and angelic journalists would not seek to influence them. The power to punish for contempt, as a means of safeguarding judges in deciding on behalf of the community as impartially as is given to the lot of men to decide, is not a privilege accorded to judges. The power to punish for contempt of court is a safeguard not for judges as persons but for the function which they exercise. It is a condition of that function-indispensable for a free society-that in a particular controversy pending before a court and awaiting judgment, human beings, however strong, should not be torn from their moorings of impartiality by the undertow of extraneous influence. In securing freedom of speech, the Constitution hardly meant to create the right to influence judges or juries. That is no more freedom of speech than stuffing a ballot box is an exercise of the right to vote.

Due regard for these general considerations must dispose of the present controversy. Since at the core of our problem is a proper balance between two basic conditions of our constitutional democracy-freedom of utterance and impartial justice-we cannot escape the exercise of judgment on the particular circumstances of the particular case. And we must always bear in mind that since a judgment from a State court comes here as the voice of the State, it must be accorded every fair intendment that in reason belongs to action by a state.

According to the Florida Supreme Court, the charge against petitioners was that 'both the editorials and the cartoon were predicated on inaccurate, distorted, incomplete and biased reports of pending litigation, that the purpose and effect of the editorials and the cartoon were to impute part sanship and favor on the part of the circuit judges to those charged with crime and that such partisanship was so pronounced that they refused to heed the voice of the peoples' representatives. * * * So the vice in both the editorials was the distorted, inaccurate statement of the facts and with that statement were scrambled false insinuations that amounted to unwarranted charges of partisanship and unfairness on the part of the judges.' [14] The tenor of the first editorial was complaint of the technicalities and delays of the law which seem to give excessive protection to defendants. It makes no suggestion which could be construed as an attempt to influence the court's decision in a matter actually pending before it. All the questions discussed in the editorial had been acted on by the trial judges. The editor merely indulged in general criticism of those acts as exemplifying an over-solicitous concern for defendants by the law and by the judges who interpreted it. Nor was the cartoon directed toward a particular pending case. Indeed, it partly serves to interpret the editorial as one concerned with a general situation. One suspects that only judicial hypersensitiveness would find in it an animus specifically directed. The opinion of the court illustrates the danger of confusing correction of interference with judicial action with concern over a court's dignity. Instead of treating lightly a cartoon indistinguishable in type from scores of such ephemeral products, the court saw in it wholly undeserved significance.

Again, the second editorial referred to a particular case only as an example. In that case, too, the court had made its decision. What the editor criticized was the speed of disposition and other features of procedure which attended the case. His allowable concern was that the people have a chance to give their argument, that the prosecution in criminal cases be treated as fairly as the defense. Inaccurate and even false comment on litigation no longer pending may not be dealt with by punishing for contempt as a means of assuring the just exercise of the judicial process.

The Florida Supreme Court referred to the cases criticized as 'pending.' But it did not define the scope of 'pending' nor did the grounds of its decision have any particular dependence on the requirement that a case be pending. The finding by a State court that a case is 'pending' in the sense relevant to the power to punish for contempt does not, of course, bar its review here. Otherwise a State court could foreclose our protection of the constitutional right of free speech by putting forth as a nonfederal ground of decision that which is an essential aspect of the federal question. Union Pac. R. Co. v. Public Service Comm., 248 U.S. 67, 69, 70, 39 S.Ct. 24, 25, 63 L.Ed. 131; Ward v. Board of County Com'rs of Love County, 253 U.S. 17, 22, 40 S.Ct. 419, 421, 64 L.Ed. 751; Davis v. Wechsler, 263 U.S. 22, 44 S.Ct. 13, 68 L.Ed. 143.

If it is contemptuous to bring the courts of a State into disrepute and generally to impair their efficiency, then it can make no difference on what occasion or with reference to what event, that effect is achieved or attempted. But when it is understood what is meant by a 'pending' case, it becomes plain that for purposes of punishing for contempt as interference, the cases were not actively pending. 'Pending' is not used with the technical inclusiveness that it has in the phrase lis pendens. In the situations in which that phrase has meaning and applicability, the important considerations are whether any proceedings have been taken to put the issue into court and whether it is still there. Where the power to punish for contempt is asserted, it is not important that the case is technically in court or that further proceedings, such as the possibility of a rehearing, are available. 'When a case is pending is not a technical, lawyer's problem, but is to be determined by the substa tial realities of the specific situation.' Bridges v. California, 314 U.S. 252, 279, at pages 303, 304, 62 S.Ct. 190, 201 at page 213, 86 L.Ed. 192, 159 A.L.R. 1346 (dissent). The decisive consideration is whether the judge or the jury is, or presently will be, pondering a decision that comment seeks to affect. Forbidden comment is such as will or may throw psychological weight into scales which the court is immediately balancing. Cf. L. Hand, J., in Ex parte Craig, 282 F. 138, 159, 160. In the situation before us, the scales had come to rest. The petitioners offended the trial court by criticizing what the court had already put in the scales, not by attempting themselves to insert weights.

The petitioners here could not have disturbed the trial court in its sense of fairness but only in its sense of perspective. The judgment must, I agree, be reversed.

Mr. Justice MURPHY, concurring.

Were we to sanction the judgment rendered by the court below we would be approving, in effect, an unwarranted restriction upon the freedom of the press. That freedom covers something more than the right to approve and condone insofar as the judiciary and the judicial process are concerned. It also includes the right to criticize and disparage, even though the terms be vitriolic, scurrilous or erroneous. To talk of a clear and present danger arising out of such criticism is idle unless the criticism makes it impossible in a very real sense for a court to carry on the administration of justice. That situation is not even remotely present in this case.

Judges should be foremost in their vigilance to protect the freedom of others to rebuke and castigate the bench and in their refusal to be influenced by unfair or misinformed censure. Otherwise freedom may rest upon the precarious base of judicial sensitiveness and caprice. And a chain reaction may be set up, resulting in countless restrictions and limitations upon liberty.

Mr. Justice RUTLEDGE, concurring.

One can have no respect for a newspaper which is careless with facts and with insinuations founded in its carelessness. Such a disregard for the truth not only flouts standards of journalistic activity [1] observed too often by breach, but in fact tends to bring the courts and those who administer them into undeserved public obloquy.

But if every newspaper which prints critical comment about courts without justifiable basis in fact, or withholds the full truth in reporting their proceedings or decisions, or goes even further and misstates what they have done, were subject on these accounts to punishment for contempt, there would be ew not frequently involved in such proceedings. There is perhaps no area of news more inaccurately reported factually, on the whole, though with some notable exceptions, than legal news.

Some part of this is due to carelessness, often induced by the haste with which news is gathered and published, a smaller portion to bias or more blameworthy causes. But a great deal of it must be attributed, in candor, to ignorance which frequently is not at all blameworthy. For newspapers are conducted by men who are laymen to the law. With too rare exceptions their capacity for misunderstanding the significance of legal events and procedures, not to speak of opinions, is great. But this is neither remarkable nor peculiar to newsmen. For the law, as lawyers best know, is full of perplexities.

In view of these facts any standard which would require strict accuracy in reporting legal events factually or in commenting upon them in the press would be an impossible one. Unless the courts and judges are to be put above criticism, no such rule can obtain. There must be some room for misstatement of fact, as well as for misjudgment, if the press and others are to function as critical agencies in our democracy concerning courts as for all other instruments of government.

Courts and judges therefore cannot be put altogether beyond the reach of misrepresentation and misstatement. That is true in any case, but perhaps more obviously where the judiciary is elective, as it is in most of our states, including Florida. See Storey v. Illinois, 79 Ill. 45, 52, 22 Am.Rep. 158; (1927) 41 Harv.L.Rev. 254, 255. The question, and the standard, must be one of degree and effects. It cannot be placed at mere falsity, either in representation or in judgment. The statement, whether of fact or of opinion, must be of such a character, whether true or false, as to obstruct in some clear and substantial way the functioning of the judicial process in pending matters. Bridges v. California, 314 U.S. 252, 62 S.Ct. 190, 86 L.Ed. 192, 159 A.L.R. 1346. [2] It is not enough that the judge's sensibilities are affected or that in some way he is brought generally into obloquy. After all, it is to be remembered that it is judges who apply the law of contempt, and the offender is their critic.

The statements in question are clearly fair comment in large part. Portions exceed that boundary. But the record does not disclose that they tended in any way to block or obstruct the functioning of the judicial process. Accordingly I concur in the Court's opinion and judgment.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Compare Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47, 52, 39 S.Ct. 247, 249, 63 L.Ed. 470; Thornhill v. Alabama, 310 U.S. 88, 105, 60 S.Ct. 736, 745, 84 L.Ed. 1093; Carlson v. California, 310 U.S. 106, 113, 60 S.Ct. 746, 749, 84 L.Ed. 1104; West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 316 U.S. 624, 633, 63 S.Ct. 1178, 1183, 87 L.Ed. 1628, 147 A.L.R. 674. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ref1" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ref1" defined multiple times with different content
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652, 666, 45 S.Ct. 625, 630, 69 L.Ed. 1138; Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697, 707, 51 S.Ct. 625, 628, 75 L.Ed. 1357. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ref2" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ref2" defined multiple times with different content
  3. 3.0 3.1 Bridges v. California, 314 U.S. 252, 267, 62 S.Ct. 190, 195, 86 L.Ed. 192, 159 A.L.R. 1346. Compare Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 228, 60 S.Ct. 472, 473, 84 L.Ed. 716; Hooven & Allison Co. v. Evatt, 324 U.S. 652, 659. 65 S.Ct. 870, 874, 89 L.Ed. 1252. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ref3" defined multiple times with different content
  4. 4.0 4.1 November 2, 1944: Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ref4" defined multiple times with different content
  5. 5.0 5.1 22 So.2d 875, 882: 'So the vice in both the editorials was the distorted, inaccurate statement of the facts and with that statement were scrambled false insinuations that amounted to unwarranted charges of partisanship and unfairness on the part of the judges. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ref5" defined multiple times with different content
  6. 6.0 6.1 22 So.2d 875, 884, 885, 886: Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ref6" defined multiple times with different content
  7. 7.0 7.1 See IX Wigmore, Evidence (3d Ed.) § 2557. Crawford v. United States, 212 U.S. 183, 203, 29 S.Ct. 260, 267, 53 L.Ed. 465, 15 Ann.Cas. 392. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ref7" defined multiple times with different content
  8. 8.0 8.1 Milk Wagon Drivers Union v. Meadowmoor Dairies, 312 U.S. 287, 293, 294, 61 S.Ct. 552, 555, 85 L.Ed. 836, 132 A.L.R. 1200; Lisenba v. California, 314 U.S. 219, 238, 62 S.Ct. 280, 291, 86 L.Ed. 166. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ref8" defined multiple times with different content
  9. 9.0 9.1 Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 239, 60 S.Ct. 472, 478, 84 L.Ed. 716; Ashcraft v. Tennessee, 322 U.S. 143, 152, 153, 154, 64 S.Ct. 921, 925, 926, 88 L.Ed. 1192; Malinski v. New York, 324 U.S. 401, 404, 65 S.Ct. 781, 783, 89 L.Ed. 1029. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ref9" defined multiple times with different content
  10. 10.0 10.1 See the cases in the preceding paragraph, note 8. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ref10" defined multiple times with different content
  11. 11.0 11.1 Murdock v. Pennsylvania, 319 U.S. 105, 115, 63 S.Ct. 870, 876, 891, 87 L.Ed. 1292, 146 A.L.R. 81; West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 639, 63 S.Ct. 1178, 1186, 87 L.Ed. 1628, 147 A.L.R. 674; Thomas v. Collins, 323 U.S. 516, 527, 530, 65 S.Ct. 315, 321, 323, 89 L.Ed. 430. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ref11" defined multiple times with different content
  12. 12.0 12.1 Bridges v. California, 314 U.S. at page 269, 62 S.Ct. at page 196, 86 L.Ed. 192, 159 A.L.R. 1346: Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ref12" defined multiple times with different content
  13. 13.0 13.1 'These respondents deny any intent by either said editorial or said cartoon either in words or otherwise to interfere with fair and impartial justice in the State of Florida and deny that the large character in the cartoon was beside the judge and on the bench and being heard, recognized and favored, but, on the contrary, these respondents respectfully show that it was the intention of said editorial and said cartoon to condemn and criticise the system of pleading and practice and procedure created by the laws of Florida, whereby such cases could long be delayed and then could be dismissed upon technical grounds in the manner herein shown.' Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ref13" defined multiple times with different content
  14. Pennekamp v. State, Fla., 22 So.2d 875, 881, 882.

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