Global Freedom of Expression

Beauharnais v. Illinois

Closed Contracts Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Pamphlets / Posters / Banners, Public Speech, Written speech
  • Date of Decision
    April 28, 1952
  • Outcome
    Affirmed Lower Court, Law or Action Upheld, Criminal Sanctions
  • Case Number
    343 U.S. 250
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Supreme (court of final appeal)
  • Type of Law
    Criminal Law, Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Defamation / Reputation, Hate Speech
  • Tags

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The US Supreme Court upheld a conviction under an Illinois statute punishing the publication of disparaging speech about “a class of citizens, of any race” that exposes that class to contempt or derision. Joseph Beauharnais was charged for distributing a leaflet attached to an application for membership in the White Circle League decrying the “encroachment” and “aggressions” of black Americans in the City of Chicago. The Supreme Court reasoned that punishment for criminal libel against a class of citizens, especially given the history of racial strife exacerbated by falsehoods in Illinois, fell within the acceptable limits on free speech permitted by the Constitution and Court precedents.


Section 224a of the Illinois Criminal Code (“Section 224a” or “the statute”) outlawed inflammatory or disparaging speech that provokes a negative reaction toward a race or class of people. The statute provided, in relevant part: “It shall be unlawful for any person [to] exhibit in any public place in this state any lithograph … which publication or exhibition portrays depravity, criminality, unchastity, or lack of virtue of a class of citizens … [which] exposes the citizens of any race, color, creed or religion to contempt, derision, or obloquy or which is productive of breach of the peace or riots … .” (at 251) The purpose of the law was supposedly to “punish utterances promoting friction among racial and religious groups.” (at 252)

On January 6, 1950, Beauharnais, president of the White Circle League of America in Chicago, passed out bundles of lithographs (“the leaflets”) at a group meeting. The leaflet set forth a petition calling on the mayor and city council of Chicago, Illinois, “to halt the further encroachment, harassment and invasion of white people, their property, neighborhoods and persons, by the Negro … . If persuasion and the need to prevent the white race from becoming mongrelized by the negro will not unite us, then the aggressions … rapes, robberies, knives, guns and marijuana of the negro, surely will.” There were many more passages to similar effect. Attached to the leaflet was an application for membership in the White Circle League.

The calls to halt the “encroachment” of black Americans, though generalized and persistent, may have been prompted by U.S. President Harry Truman’s recent civil rights programs, and decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down as unconstitutional the use of restrictive covenants to prevent black Americans from moving into predominantly white neighborhoods.

Accompanying the leaflets were detailed instructions for their distribution, which occurred on Chicago street corners on January 7 in accordance with Beauharnais’ plan. The state subsequently charged Beauharnais under Section 224a in the Municipal Court of Chicago for the dissemination of the leaflets as a public exhibition of a lithograph “portray[ing] depravity, criminality, unchastity or lack of virtue of citizens of Negro race and color and … expos[ing] citizens of Illinois of the Negro race and color to contempt, derision, or obloquy.” (at 252)

Beauharnais argued that the statute violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for being too vague, and for violating his freedom of speech guaranteed under the First Amendment. A jury, relying on various interpretive legal rulings made by the court, convicted Beauharnais, who received a $200 fine under the statute. There were several questions raised during and after trial about the court’s lack of instructions requiring clear and present danger, the intervening rulings by the court in place of the jury, the denial of truth as a defense, the specificity of the conviction and other matters.

The Supreme Court of Illinois upheld the conviction of Beauharnais. The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari to review the constitutionality of the statute and Beauharnais’ conviction under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and to clarify “the power of a State to punish utterances promoting friction among racial and religious groups.” (at 252)

Decision Overview

Frankfurter, J., delivered the opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prevents the U.S. Congress from making laws “abridging” the freedom of speech. It is widely accepted under U.S. law that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment makes the protections of the First Amendment applicable to the states in addition to the federal government, so the majority opinion did not devote significant discussion to the First Amendment’s applicability to the Illinois statute.

The Judge said that while the First Amendment broadly forbids laws interfering with speech, there “are certain well­-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem,” such as “fighting words,” libel and lewd and obscene speech. (at 256) According to the Court’s majority opinion, relying on the Illinois Supreme Court’s interpretation of the statute, Section 224a is “a form of criminal libel law,” which punishes false, published, defamatory speech that injures the character and reputation of another. (at 253)

To understand libel law and whether the Illinois statute was constitutional, the Court looked at the Anglo-American common law history of libel. It was obvious to the Court that it would have been libel (and thus illegal) to accuse an individual of being a rapist, robber, carrier of dangerous weapons, or user of marijuana. It then stood to reason that it is within the state’s power to punish the same statements directed at a defined group, unless the law clearly did not promote the peace and well-being of the state. The Court observed that the state of Illinois alone had a lengthy history of racial strife provoked in part by falsehoods about racial and religious groups, including the murder of a prominent abolitionist in the 1800s, and race riots including as recently as the present case was argued. While recognizing that racial tensions and and its problems are deeply rooted and complex, the Court deferred to Illinois’ policy choice to eliminate speech attacking a racial group as reasonable enough to pass constitutional muster.

Additionally, the Court found that a body of cases in Illinois and other states had demonstrated that the law was not overly vague and did not prohibit constitutional speech. Finally, the Court would not review defenses Beauharnais had failed to raise at trial, and said that Illinois was free to hold that Beauharnais’ speech required “good motives and … justifiable ends” to rely on the defense of truth. Summarily, the statute forbidding inflammatory speech concerning other races was a reasonable criminal libel law protecting the reputation of a class of citizens, and thus one of the narrow categories of speech that may be regulated under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Black, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Douglas, J., joined. Justice Black dissented because Beauharnais was attempting to petition his elected representative, an important sphere of public activity that, if endangered, leaves the “rights of assembly, petition, speech and press almost completely at the mercy of state legislative, executive, and judicial agencies.” (at 269-70) Justice Black found the majority opinion’s analogy of the Illinois statute to libel law painstaking, overly expansive and ripe for abuse.

Reed, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Douglas, J., joined. Justice Reed found the Illinois statute to be overly vague, and in particular words such as “virtue,” “derision,” and “obloquy” to be so indefinite that the law was outlawing plenty of constitutional free speech, and thus should be struck down.

Douglas, J., dissenting. Justice Douglas found that the First Amendment is “couched in absolute terms” (at 285), and that only speech with an element of conspiracy that posed a “clear and present danger” could be constitutionally outlawed.

Jackson, J., dissenting. Justice Jackson dissented to express that, while the Fourteenth Amendment does not apply the First Amendment’s protections of free speech to states, Illinois nevertheless violated Beauharnais’ due process rights by not entertaining some of his defenses, such as truth and privilege.

Decision Direction

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Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Contracts Expression

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • U.S., People v. Beauharnais, 97 N.E.2d 343 (Ill. 1951)
  • U.S., Nash v. United States, 229 U.S. 373
  • U.S., Cox v. New Hampshire, 312 U.S. 569 (1941)
  • U.S., Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942)
  • U.S., Pennekamp v. Florida, 328 U.S. 331 (1946)
  • U.S., Carlson v. California, 310 U.S. 106 (1940)
  • U.S., Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940)
  • U.S., Am. Steel Foundries v. Tri–City Cent. Trades Council, 257 U.S. 184 (1921)
  • U.S., Winters v. New York, 333 U.S. 507 (1948)
  • U.S., Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359 (1931)
  • U.S., Thornhill v. Alabama, 310 U.S. 88 (1940)
  • U.S., Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949)
  • U.S., Bridges v. California, 314 U.S. 252 (1941)

    Black, J., dissenting

  • U.S., Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U.S. 233 (1936)

    Black, J., dissenting; Jackson, J., dissenting

  • U.S., Lovell v. City of Griffin, 303 U.S. 444 (1938)

    Black, J., dissenting

  • U.S., Schneider v. New Jersey, 308 U.S. 147 (1939)

    Black, J., dissenting

  • U.S., Minersville Sch. Dist. v. Gobitis, 310 U.S. 586 (1940)
  • U.S., Thomas v. Collins 323 U.S. 516 (1945)

    Black, J., dissenting; Douglas, J., dissenting

  • U.S., American Communications Assn. v. Douds, 339 U.S. 382 (1950)

    Reed, J., dissenting

  • U.S., Herndon v. Lowry, 301 U.S. 242 (1937)

    Reed, J., dissenting

  • U.S., Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652 (1925)

    Reed, J., dissenting

  • U.S., Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697 (1931)

    Reed, J., dissenting; Jackson, J., dissenting

  • U.S., De Jonge v. Oregon, 299 U.S. 353 (1937)

    Reed, J., dissenting

  • U.S., Murdock v. Pennsylvania, 319 U.S. 105 (1943)

    Douglas, J., dissenting

  • U.S., Saia v. New York, 334 U.S. 558 (1948)

    Douglas, J., dissenting

  • U.S., Feiner v. New York, 340 U.S. 315 (1951)

    Douglas, J., dissenting

  • U.S., Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919)

    Jackson, J., dissenting

  • U.S., Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919)

    Douglas, J., dissenting

  • U.S., Schaefer v. United States, 251 U.S. 466 (1920)

    Douglas, J., dissenting

  • U.S., Patterson v. Colorado, 205 U.S. 454 (1907)

    Douglas, J., dissenting

  • U.S., Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319 (1937)
  • U.S., Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494 (1951)
  • U.S., Kovacs v. Cooper, 336 U.S. 77 (1949)
  • U.S., Rochin v. California, 342 U.S. 165 (1952)
  • U.S., Connally v. Gen. Constr. Co., 269 U.S. 385 (1926)

    Reed, J., dissenting

  • U.S., United States v. Press Publ’g Co., 219 U.S. 1 (1911)

    Jackson, J., dissenting

  • U.S., Prudential Insurance Co. v. Cheek, 259 U.S. 530

    Jackson, J., dissenting

  • U.S., People v. Croswell, 3 Johns. Cas. 337 (N.Y. 1804)

    Jackson, J., dissenting

  • U.S., Kunz v. New York, 340 U.S. 290

    Jackson, J., dissenting

  • U.S., Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943)

    Black, J., dissenting

  • U.S., Anderson v. Dunn, 19 U.S. 204 (1821)
  • U.S., Tigner v. Texas, 310 U.S. 141 (1940)
  • U.S., Sedition Act of 1798, 1 Stat. 596
  • U.S., Constitution of the United States (1789), First Amendment.
  • U.S., Constitution of the United States (1789), Fourteenth Amendment.

Other national standards, law or jurisprudence

  • U.K., King v. Osborne, 94 Eng. Rep. 406 (1732)
  • U.K., Bill of Rights (1689)

    Black, J., dissenting

  • U.K., Fox's Libel Act of 1792
  • U.K., Lord Campbell's Libel Act of 1843

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

Though Beauharnais has never been explicitly overturned, it has long been recognized that it is no longer good law given the Supreme Court’s subsequent decisions in Times v. Sullivan (1964), which subjected libel laws to First Amendment standards; and in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), which held that even racist incitement to violence could only be punished if the circumstances made violence imminent.


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