Historic Supreme Court Cases

This is a sampling of some of the major Supreme Court cases that are frequently studied in law school

First Amendment Cases

West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette 319 U.S. 624 (1943) (W|L)

  • Suit by Walter Barnette and others against the West Virginia State Board of Education, etc., and others for an injunction to restrain enforcement of a regulation requiring children in public schools to salute the American flag. From a decree, 47 F.Supp. 251, granting an injunction, the defendants appeal.

New York Times Co. v. United States 403 U.S. 713 (1971) (W|L)

  • The United States sought to enjoin newspapers from publishing contents of classified historical study on Viet Nam policy. In one case, the District Court for the Southern District of New York, 328 F.Supp. 324, rendered judgment from which the Government appealed, and the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, 444 F.2d 544, remanded and continued stay. In the other case, the District Court for the District of Columbia rendered judgment from which the Government appealed, and the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed, 446 F.2d 1327. In both cases certiorari was granted. The Supreme Court held that the Government had not met its burden of showing justification for imposition of restraint on publication of the contents of the study.

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan 376 U.S. 254 (1964) (W|L)

  • Respondent, an elected official in Montgomery, Alabama, brought suit in a state court alleging that he had been libeled by an advertisement in corporate petitioner's newspaper, the text of which appeared over the names of the four individual petitioners and many others. The advertisement included statements, some of which were false, about police action allegedly directed against students who participated in a civil rights demonstration and against a leader of the civil rights movement; respondent claimed the statements referred to him because his duties included supervision of the police department. The trial judge instructed the jury that such statements were "libelous per se," legal injury being implied without proof of actual damages, and that, for the purpose of compensatory damages, malice was presumed, so that such damages could be awarded against petitioners if the statements were found to have been published by them and to have related to respondent. As to punitive damages, the judge instructed that mere negligence was not evidence of actual malice, and would not justify an award of punitive damages; he refused to instruct that actual intent to harm or recklessness had to be found before punitive damages could be awarded, or that a verdict for respondent should differentiate between compensatory and punitive damages. The jury found for respondent, and the State Supreme Court affirmed. Held: A State cannot, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, award damages to a public official for defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves "actual malice" -- that the statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false. Pp. 265-292.

Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire 315 U.S. 568 (1942) (W|L)

  • In late November 1941, Walter Chaplinsky, a Jehovah's Witness was using the public sidewalk as a pulpit in downtown Rochester, passing out pamphlets and calling organized religion a "racket." After a large crowd had begun blocking the roads and generally causing a scene, a police officer removed Chaplinsky to take him to police headquarters. Along the way he met the town marshal, who had earlier warned Chaplinsky to keep it down and avoid causing a commotion. Upon meeting the marshal for the second time, Chaplinsky attacked him verbally. The complaint against Chaplinsky charged that he had shouted: "You are a God-damned racketeer" and "a damned Fascist" and was arrested. Chaplinsky admitted that he said the words charged in the complaint, with the exception of the name of the Deity. For this, he was arrested under a New Hampshire statute preventing intentionally offensive speech being directed at others in a public place. Under NH.'s Offensive Conduct law (chap. 378, para. 2 of the NH. Public Laws) it is illegal for anyone to address another person with "any offensive, derisive or annoying word to anyone who is lawfully in any street or public place...or to call him by an offensive or derisive name." Chaplinsky was fined, but he appealed, claiming the law was "vague" and infringed upon his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to free speech. The Court, in a unanimous decision, upheld the arrest. Writing the decision for the Court, Justice Frank Murphy advanced a "two-tier theory" of the First Amendment. Certain "well-defined and narrowly limited" categories of speech fall outside the bounds of constitutional protection. Thus, "the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous," and (in this case) insulting or "fighting" words neither contributed to the expression of ideas nor possessed any "social value" in the search for truth.

Schenck v. United States 249 U.S. 47 (1919) (W|L)

  • Decision concerning the question of whether the defendant possessed a First Amendment right to free speech against the draft during World War I. Charles Schenck was the Secretary of the Socialist party and was responsible for printing distributing and mailing 15,000 leaflets to men eligible for the draft that advocated opposition to the draft. These leaflets contained statements such as; "Do not submit to intimidation", "Assert your rights", "If you do not assert and support your rights, you are helping to deny or disparage rights which it is the solemn duty of all citizens and residents of the United States to retain." Ultimately, the case served as the founding of the "clear and present danger" rule.

Engel v. Vitale 370 U.S. 421 (1962) (W|L)

  • Proceeding, by parents of public school pupils, brought to compel a board of education to discontinue use, in public schools, of official prayer which was assertedly contrary to the beliefs, religions, or religious practices of themselves and their children. The Supreme Court of New York, Special Term, 18 Misc.2d 659, 191 N.Y.S.2d 453, the Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division, 11 A.D.2d 340, 206 N.Y.S.2d 183, and the Court of Appeals of New York, 10 N.Y.2d 174, 218 N.Y.S.2d 659, 176 N.E.2d 579, upheld the board of education's use of the prayer. Certiorari was granted. The Supreme Court, Mr. Justice Black, held that New York's program of daily classroom invocation of God's blessings as prescribed in prayer promulgated by its Board of Regents was a ‘religious activity’, and use of public school system to encourage recitation of such prayer was practice wholly inconsistent with Establishment of Religion Clause of Constitution, though pupils were not required to participate over their or their parents' objection.

Heafey Law Library Research Team