COX v. LOUISIANA
On December 14, 1961, the Baton Rouge police arrested 23 members of the Congress of Racial Equality (“CORE”) on a charge of illegal picketing. In response B. Elton Cox, a leading member of CORE, and others planned to march through parts of Baton Rouge, LA, ending with a demonstration at the courthouse. An estimated 1,500 to 3,800 protesters demonstrated during the hearings of the 23 jailed members.
Baton Rouge Police Chief Wingate White confronted the protestors when they arrived at the courthouse, telling them that they must confine the demonstration “to the west side of the street” within a designated period of time. After the group began their demonstration, a sheriff ordered them to disperse. Officers then forcibly dispersed the demonstration and arrested several demonstrators, including Cox.
Cox was charged under Louisiana Revised Statute 14:401, which specifically prohibited “pickets or parades in or near a building housing a court of the State of Louisiana.” He was given the maximum fine of $5,000 and sentenced to one year in jail. The Supreme Court of Louisiana unanimously upheld his conviction and wrote that the statute rightfully protects the justice system from threats or intimidation, and that the term “near” is not unconstitutionally vague."
Did the state of Louisiana violate due process under the Fourteenth Amendment when it arrested Cox for picketing approximately 101 feet from a courthouse?
Does the Louisiana statute prohibiting picketing “near” a courthouse violate the Constitution’s protection of free speech under the First and Fourteenth Amendments?
Legal provision: Amendment 1: Speech, Press, and Assembly
"Yes and no. Louisiana’s application of the statute was unconstitutional because Cox and other protesters were given permission by police before the protest at the courthouse began. The Court held, in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Arthur J. Goldberg, that the statute’s use of the term “near” left it open to the interpretation of law enforcement officials. When police officers told Cox and his fellow protestors that they could demonstrate across the street from the courthouse, they gave them permission that could not be taken away by a simple order to disperse.
However, the Court also held that the statute was constitutional on its face. Louisiana was protecting a legitimate interest in attempting to shield its judicial system from the influence of nearby protestors. It avoids free speech concerns because it is narrowly drawn and only prohibits a certain specific behavior.
Justice Hugo L. Black dissented, joined by Justices Byron R. White and John M. Harlan, arguing that the demonstrators’ stated intent to influence courthouse officials showed that the application of the statute was justified. Justice Tom C. Clark dissented because the demonstration could be heard and seen by those within the courthouse. He wrote that the police’s permission is not relevant to the definition of “near.”