Libelous utterances are not within the area of constitutionally protected speech.
Petitioner, Beauharnais, was the president of a group called the White Circle League. The league distributed bundles of lithographs and literature that portrayed depravity, criminality, or lack of virtue of black citizens. The league also called on city officials to halt the invasion of white people, their property, neighborhoods, and persons by black citizens through the adoption of segregation measures. Thereafter, Beauharnais was convicted of violating Ill. Rev. Stat. ch. 38, § 471 (1949). The statute prohibited publications attacking "citizens of any race, color, creed, or religion." He was not permitted to raise at his trial the defenses of truth, fair comment, and privilege, and subsequently, the trial court decided as a matter of law the libelous character of the utterance, leaving to the jury only the question of publication. He was found guilty and convicted. On appeal, Beauharnais asserted that the statute violated the liberty of free speech and press guaranteed against the states by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that the statute was too vague, under the restrictions implicit in the same clause, to support conviction for crime.
Does Ill. Rev. Stat. ch. 38, § 471 (1949) violate the liberty of free speech and press?
The Court upheld the constitutionality of the challenged statute, holding that the protection of "liberty" in the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment did not prevent a state from punishing a criminal libel directed at defined groups, such as specified in the statute. According to the Court, since libelous utterances were not within the area of constitutionally protected speech, it was not necessary for the Court to consider the issues raised by the denial of petitioner's request that the jury be instructed that, in order to convict, they must find that the publication complained of was likely to produce a "clear and present danger" of a substantial evil.