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Whatever differences may exist about interpretations of the First Amendment, there is practically universal agreement that a major purpose of that Amendment was to protect the free discussion of governmental affairs. This of course includes discussions of candidates, structures, and forms of government, the manner in which government is operated or should be operated, and all such matters relating to political processes. The Constitution specifically selected the press, which includes not only newspapers, books, and magazines but also humble leaflets and circulars to play an important role in the discussion of public affairs. Thus, the press serves and was designed to serve as a powerful antidote to any abuses of power by governmental officials and as a constitutionally chosen means for keeping officials elected by the people responsible to all the people whom they were selected to serve. Suppression of the right of the press to praise or criticize governmental agents and to clamor and contend for or against change, which is all that this editorial did, muzzles one of the very agencies the Framers of our Constitution thoughtfully and deliberately selected to improve our society and keep it free.
The editor of a daily newspaper was charged in an Alabama state court with having violated Alabama Corrupt Practices Act, Ala. Code Tit.17 §§ 268-286 (1940), a statute which made it a crime to solicit any votes on election day in support of or in opposition to any proposition being voted on that day. The charge was based on the fact that the editor published an editorial on election day urging people to vote in favor of mayor-council government. The trial court sustained demurrers to the complaint on the grounds that the statute abridged freedom of speech and press in violation of the state and federal constitutions. On the state's appeal, the Alabama Supreme Court held that publication of the editorial violated the state law and that the statute as applied did not unconstitutionally abridge freedom of speech or press. The case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings not inconsistent with that opinion. The editor sought review of the order of the Alabama Supreme Court.
Did Alabama Corrupt Practices Act, Ala. Code Tit.17 §§ 268-286 (1940) abridge freedom of speech and press in violation of the state and federal constitutions?
The Court held that the Alabama Corrupt Practices Act, Ala. Code Tit.17 §§ 268-286 (1940) was an obvious and flagrant abridgment of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press because it provided criminal penalties for publishing editorials which silenced the press at a time when it could be most effective. The Court held that under any test of reasonableness, §§ 268-286 violated the First Amendment by making it a crime for a newspaper editor to urge people to vote one way or another in a public election.