Feiner v. New York, 340 U.S. 315; 71 S. Ct. 303; 95 L. Ed. 295 (1951)

Feiner v. New York, 340 U.S. 315; 71 S. Ct. 303; 95 L. Ed. 295 (1951)

Facts—Irving Feiner, a student at Syracuse University, addressed a street meeting of about seventy-five people, urging them to attend a meeting that night on the subject of civil rights. He made derogatory remarks about President Truman, the American Legion, the mayor of Syracuse, and other local political officials. The police arrived and noted the restlessness of the crowd. Feiner was asked several times to stop talking and was then arrested. He was convicted of creating a breach of the peace. Three lower courts in New York upheld his conviction.

Question—Do police violate the right of free speech as guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments when they stop a lawful assembly when it passes the limits of persuasion and undertakes incitement to riot?


ReasonsC.J. Vinson (6–3). The officers making the arrest were concerned only with the preservation of law and order and not with the suppression of Feiner’s views and opinions. The deliberate defiance of Feiner and the imminent danger of reaction in the crowd constituted sufficient reason for state police action. The guarantee of free speech does not license incitement to riot. Moreover, the state courts’ approval of the action of the local police was entitled to the utmost consideration.

J. Black, J. Douglas, and J. Minton did not believe that this speech actually constituted a breach of the peace. They thought lower courts had been too willing to accept the prosecution’s point of view.

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