Law School Case Brief
Stromberg v. California - 283 U.S. 359, 51 S. Ct. 532 (1931)
The maintenance of the opportunity for free political discussion to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people and that changes may be obtained by lawful means, an opportunity essential to the security of the United States, is a fundamental principle of the constitutional system. A statute which upon its face, and as authoritatively construed, is so vague and indefinite as to permit the punishment of the fair use of this opportunity is repugnant to the guaranty of liberty contained in the Fourteenth Amendment.
Several defendants including appellant Stromberg, were charged under California Penal Code, § 403a, which condemns displaying a red flag in a public place or in a meeting place (a) "as a sign, symbol or emblem of opposition to organized government" or (b) "as an invitation or stimulus to anarchistic action" or (c) "as an aid to propaganda that is of a seditious character." These three purposes, which are expressed disjunctively in the statute, were alleged conjunctively in the information. On her general demurrer to the information, which was overruled, Stromberg contended, as was permitted by the California practice, that the statute was repugnant to the Fourteenth Amendment. At the trial the jury was instructed, following the express terms of the statute, that the appellant should be convicted if the flag was displayed for any of the three purposes. There was a general verdict of guilty. Stromberg accepted this instruction in the state appellate court, but insisted that, under the Fourteenth Amendment, the statute was invalid as being an unwarranted limitation on the right of free speech. The appellate court entertained the contention and decided adversely, expressing doubt of the validity of the statute as related to the first of the three clauses defining purpose ("opposition to organized government,") but construing them as disjunctive and separable, and upholding the statute as to the other two. Stromberg's petition for a hearing by the Supreme Court of California was denied, and an appeal has been taken to the United States Supreme Court.
Was the the first clause of the statute, which prohibited the display of the flag as a sign of opposition to organized government, constitutional?
The United States Supreme Court held that, as the verdict against Stromberg did not specify the ground upon which it rested, if any of the three purposes was invalid under the Federal Constitution, the conviction could not be upheld. It then held that the first clause of the statute, which prohibited the display of the flag as a sign of opposition to organized government, was unconstitutional because it could be construed to prohibit peaceful and orderly opposition to government by legal means.
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