BEAUHARNAIS v. ILLINOIS
Joseph Beauharnais, president of White Circle League, Inc., was arrested on January 7, 1950 for distributing leaflets on Chicago street corners. The leaflets called in part upon the mayor and aldermen of Chicago "to halt the further encroachment, harassment and invasion of white people…by the Negro." Beauharnais was charged with violating an Illinois law making it illegal to distribute any publication that "exposes the citizens of any race, color, creed or religion to contempt, derision, or obloquy." A jury found him guilty and he was fined $200. The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed his conviction.
id Beuharnais' conviction under the Illinois statute violate his constitutional right to free speech under the First and Fourteenth Amendments?
No. In a 5 – 4 opinion authored by Justice Felix Frankfurter, the Court concluded that Beuharnais' speech amounted to libel and was therefore beyond constitutional protection. Citing the racial tensions of the day, the Court characterized Beuharnais' speech as provocative and rejected the argument that the Illinois statute could be easily abused, stating, "Every power may be abused, but the possibility of abuse is a poor reason for denying Illinois the power to adopt measures against criminal libels sanctioned by centuries of Anglo-American law."