SCHNEIDER v. STATE OF NEW JERSEY
Municipal codes in four cities across the United States--Milwaukee, WI, Los Angeles, CA, Worchester, MA, and Irvington, NJ--banned hand-to-hand distribution of pamphlets in public places and private residences. Defendants convicted of violating these ordinances in each city argued that the ordinances were invalidated by the fundamental constitutional protection of free speech. The cities argued that the bans upheld their municipal prerogative to keep streets clean and reduce littering. Upon appeal in each case, the Supreme Court consolidated the four.
Do the interests of cities in reducing littering justify encroachments upon the First Amendment by banning the hand-to-hand distribution of pamphlets in public places and private residences?
No. Justice Owen J. Roberts delivered the opinion of a unanimous court. The First Amendment right to free speech was fundamental and substantially impaired by the bans against distributing pamphlets. The burden on cities of upholding First Amendment free speech outweighed the burdens of cleaning up litter caused by hand-to-hand pamphleteering. The cities could regulate dishonest pamphleteering and legislate in order to keep streets freely accessible, but could not outlaw one citizen's attempt to impart information to another citizen through the means of passing out written documents.