Terminiello v. Chicago

Terminiello v. Chicago

Terminiello v. City of Chicago
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued February 1, 1949
Decided May 16, 1949
Full case name Terminiello v. City of Chicago
Citations 337 more)
69 S. Ct. 894; 93 L. Ed. 1131; 1949 U.S. LEXIS 2400
Prior history Conviction affirmed by Illinois Court of Appeals, 332 Ill. App. 17; affirmed by Supreme Court of Illinois, 400 Ill. 23; certiorari granted, 335 U.S. 890
Subsequent history Rehearing denied, 337 U.S. 934
Chicago's "breach of peace" ordinance was unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Douglas, joined by Reed, Murphy, Rutledge, Black
Dissent Vinson
Dissent Frankfurter, joined by Jackson, Burton
Dissent Jackson, joined by Burton
Laws applied
U.S. Const. Amends. I & XIV

Terminiello v. City of Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949), was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that a "breach of peace" ordinance of the City of Chicago which banned speech which "stirs the public to anger, invites dispute, brings about a condition of unrest, or creates a disturbance" was unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.


Arthur Terminiello, a Catholic priest under suspension,[1] was giving a speech to the Christian Veterans of America in which he criticized various racial groups and made a number of inflammatory comments. There were approximately 800 people present in the auditorium where he was giving the speech, and a crowd of approximately 1,000 people outside, protesting the speech. The Chicago Police Department was present, but was unable to completely maintain order. Terminiello was later assessed a fine of 100 dollars for violation of Chicago's breach of peace ordinance, which he appealed. Both the Illinois Appellate Court and Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the conviction. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Majority opinion

Justice William O. Douglas, writing for the majority, reversed Terminiello's conviction, holding that not only was his speech protected by the First Amendment (which was made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment), but that the ordinance, as construed by the Illinois courts, was unconstitutional. Douglas explained that the purpose of free speech was to invite dispute, even where it incites people to anger; in fact, the provocative and inflammatory content of speech could potentially be seen as positive. Although Douglas acknowledged that freedom of speech was not limitless, and did not apply to "fighting words" (citing to Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire), he held that such limitations were inapplicable here.

Dissenting opinions

Vinson's dissent

Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson dissented on the ground that the jury instruction which the majority objected to had been affirmed by both appellate courts. He felt that the Illinois courts had construed the ordinance only as punishing fighting words, and that petitioner's counsel had not previously objected to the instruction below on Constitutional grounds.

Frankfurter's dissent

Justice Felix Frankfurter largely echoed the sentiments of Chief Justice Vinson, feeling that the majority was going out of its way to reverse Terminiello's fine, when such an action went against the balance of power between the Federal and state courts:

Freedom of speech undoubtedly means freedom to express views that challenge deep-seated, sacred beliefs and to utter sentiments that may provoke resentment. But those indulging in such stuff as that to which this proceeding gave rise are hardly so deserving as to lead this Court to single them out as beneficiaries of the first departure from the restrictions that bind this Court in reviewing judgments of State courts. Especially odd is it to bestow such favor not for the sake of life or liberty, but to save a small amount of property — $100, the amount of the fine imposed upon the petitioner in a proceeding which is civil, not criminal, under the laws of Illinois, and thus subject only to limited review.

337 U.S. at 11-12.

Jackson's dissent

Justice Jackson's dissent was considerably longer and more elaborate than Vinson's or Frankfurter's. Jackson felt the majority was ignoring the very real concern of maintaining public order, and that the majority's generalized suspicion of any restriction of free speech was blinding them to the fact that a riot was occurring at Terminiello's place of speaking. His basic argument was that although the First Amendment protects the expression of ideas, it does not protect them absolutely, in all circumstances, regardless of the danger it may create to the public at large. To underscore his point, Jackson reiterated the testimony given at trial by Terminiello himself, as well as excerpts from Terminiello's speech (in which he made anti-semitic remarks, inflammatory comments about various U.S. officials, and statements praising fascist leaders), in order to demonstrate the chaotic and violent scene in which Terminiello was speaking.

Jackson framed Terminiello's speech, and the violent fracas which surrounded it, in the context of the global struggle between fascism and communism in the post-World War II world. He feared that these two groups, dominated as they were by radicals and accustomed to using violent means to propagate their ideology, were a threat to legitimate democratic governments, and that the court's decision would greatly reduce the power of local law enforcement authorities to keep such violence in check. He also noted that without the help of the Chicago Police Department, Terminiello would not have even been able to give his speech, and that the majority's opinion was not in line with the "clear and present danger" test set forth in Schenck v. United States.

Jackson's dissent in this case is most famous for its final paragraph:

This Court has gone far toward accepting the doctrine that civil liberty means the removal of all restraints from these crowds and that all local attempts to maintain order are impairments of the liberty of the citizen. The choice is not between order and liberty. It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either. There is danger that, if the Court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.

337 U.S. at 36.

See also


External links

  • Text of Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949) is available from:  Justia 
  • Summary of case from OYEZ