BRIDGES v. CALIFORNIA
Harry Bridges, the leader of a longshoreman's union, sent a telegram to Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labor, regarding a case pending that was in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. Bridges implied that he would have his union go on strike if the Superior Court ruled unfavorably. A copy of the telegram was given to James D. O'Neil, who distributed the telegram to various West Coast Newspapers. The Superior Court found Bridges in contempt of court and fined him. Similarly, the Los Angeles Times was also found in contempt of court and fined for publishing several editorials regarding a case pending in the Superior Court. Bridges and the Times challenged their punishments separately in the Superior Court. The Superior Court upheld their fines, and both appealed separately to the Supreme Court of California. The California Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court. Bridges and the Times appealed separately to the Supreme Court, where the cases were consolidated.
Was the Superior Court's findings of contempt against Bridges and the Times in violation of the free speech and free press clauses of the First Amendment?
Yes. In a 5-4 decision, the Court reversed the Supreme Court of California and found the fines for contempt unconstitutional. Justice Hugo L. Black, writing for the majority, relied on the "clear and present danger" standard set forth in Schenk v. United States. Bridges' telegram was his exercise of his First Amendment right to petition the government, and his supposed intention to call a strike was consistent with California law. The Times editorials, meanwhile, had "negligible" effect "on the course of justice." The dangers that the California Superior Court attributed to the telegram and the editorials were neither "serious" nor "substantial." Therefore, they did not pose the "clear and present danger" required to justify the restrictions placed by the California Superior Court.