326 US 501 (Decided January 7, 1946)
Bill Long 10/01/04
In this case, another of the long line of Jehovah's Witness cases that came before the Court in the WWII era, the Court held (5-3), that a State cannot impose criminal punishment on a person who distributes religious literature on the premises of a company-owned town contrary to the wishes of the town's management. By so deciding the Court extended the logic of Lovell (303 US 444) and Jamison (318 US 141), the former of which had prohibited a municipality from forbidding distribution of religious or political literature on the streets except with the permission of an official who might deny permission at will, and the latter of which had prohibited similar literature distribution when the municipality owned the streets on which distribution/sale took place (Jamison).
Chickasaw, Alabama was owned by Gulf Shipbuilding Corporation. The idea of company-owned towns was much more prevalent in American life a century ago than now. In the bituminous coal industry, for example, about half the miners in the US lived in company owned towns in the 1920s. These towns had all the accoutrements and features of a town in which residents owned their individual properties, except that the company held title to the land on which all homes, businesses and government offices were located.
The petitioner was a Jehovah's Witness who distributed literature outside of the post office in the town. Signs posted nearby read as follows: "This is Private Property, and Without Written Permission, No Street, or House Vendor....Will be Permitted." She was asked to stop distributing her literature or, in the alternative, to remove her operation to the public highway, which was about 30 feet from the place where she proselytized. She refused and was arrested and convicted of violating a section of the Alabama Code making it a crime to enter or remain on the premises of another after being warned not to do so. Her conviction was affirmed by the Alabama Court of Appeals.
Justice Hugo Black, who himself hailed from Alabama, wrote for the majority and said that the question narrowed down to this: "Can those people who live in or come to Chickasaw be denied freedom of press and religion simply because a single company has legal title to all the town?" The state argued, and the three dissenters on the Supreme Court agreed, that company ownership of the town gave it power to abridge these freedoms.
Justice Black argued that the corporation's property interests did not settle the question. Ownership of property does not mean absolute dominion. "The more an owner, for his advantage, opens up his property for use by the public in general, the more do his rights become circumscribed by the statutory and constitutional rights of those who use it." That is, owners of privately-held facilities such as ferries or railroads may not operate them as freely as a farmer operates his farm. Certainly the corporation would not have been able to prevent highway traffic on the major thoroughfare 30 feet away if the corporation owned title to the highway. The concerns of interstate commerce would trump the individual owner's right to close off a vital artery of trade.
Using this analogy, Justice Black then concluded, "Whether a corporation or a municipality owns or possesses the town the public in either case has an identical interest in the functioning of the community in such manner that the channels of communication remain free." Since she was distributing literature in the "business block" of the town, which is freely accessible to all-comers, the corporation could not curtail the liberty of press and religion of literature sellers/distributors.
The dissenting opinion, authored by Justice Reed, stated the issue baldly: "This is the first case to extend by law the privilege of religious exercises beyond public places to private places without the assent of the owner." Calling the majority conclusion a "novel Constitutional doctrine," the dissenters argued that this new principle would require the Court to draw arbitrary lines in the future to limit or further define this doctrine.
In fact, they argued, both Federal and Alabama law permit company towns. While admitting that the restrictions in the town might be "galling" to some, they are a matter of adjustment between owner and licensee or the state legislature. Because the Alabama legislature had made it clear that failure to depart after warning constituted a trespass, and since petitioner failed to heed a warning to desist her activity and leave, the arrest and conviction were proper. There is a concept in property law, "dedication to public use," by which the company can open private facilities to public use but failing that dedication, the corporation was within its rights in denying her the privilege of literature distribution on company-owned property.
For the dissenters the Constitution gives "to every man the right to express his views in an orderly fashion." In fact "the rights of the owner, which the Constitution protects as well as the right of free speech, are not outweighed by the interests of the trespasser, even though he trespass in behalf of religion or free speech."
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long