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Law School Case Brief

Pub. Utils. Comm'n v. Pollak - 343 U.S. 451, 72 S. Ct. 813 (1952)


The Federal Constitution does not preclude a street railway company from receiving and amplifying radio programs through loud speakers on its passenger vehicles, nor a public utilities commission from permitting the operation of the radio service, where the commission, after an investigation and public hearings, has found that the service is not inconsistent with public convenience, comfort, and safety, and tends to improve the conditions under which the public ride.


The Capital Transit Company, a privately owned public utility corporation in the District of Columbia, installed in its passenger vehicles receivers and loud speakers for the transmission of radio programs consisting mainly of music interspersed with commercials. The Public Utilities Commission of the District, after notice, investigation, and public hearings, concluded that this practice did not interfere with public convenience, comfort, and safety, but tended to improve the public service. Pollak and Martin, as protesting Capital Transit passengers, appealed the Commission’s decision to the district court, alleging that their constitutional rights, guaranteed by the First and Fifth Amendments, were violated. The district court dismissed the appeal. Pollak and Martin appealed to the federal circuit court, which partially reversed the district court judgment and vacated the Commission's order.


Does the Constitution preclude the operation of the radio service in the passenger vehicles owned by the Capital Transit Company? Moreover, does the Constitution preclude the action of the Public Utilities Commission permitting the radio service’s operation?




The Court held that neither the operation of the radio service nor the action of the Commission permitting its operation is precluded by the Federal Constitution. The Court found that the Commission's decision was within its statutory authority to prohibit or to permit and regulate the receipt and amplification of radio programs under such conditions that the total utility service should not be unsafe, uncomfortable, or inconvenient. The Court also found that the program did not interfere with the passengers' First or Fifth Amendment rights. According to the Court, the radio programs do not invade rights of privacy of the passengers in violation of the Fifth AmendmentFurthermore, the Court ruled that the Fifth Amendment does not secure to each passenger on a public vehicle regulated by the federal government a right of privacy substantially equal to the privacy to which he is entitled in his own home. The Court also averred that the transmission of radio programs through receivers and loud speakers in passenger vehicles of a street railway company does not violate the free speech guaranty of the First Amendment, where the programs do not interfere substantially with the conversation of passengers and there is no substantial claim that the programs have been used for objectionable propaganda.

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