The streets are natural and proper places for the dissemination of information and opinion; and one is not to have the exercise of his liberty of expression in appropriate places abridged on the plea that it may be exercised in some other place.
This was a consolidation of four different cases wherein defendants have been charged and convicted with violating their respective municipal ordinances (i.e. an ordinance of the City of Los Angeles, California; an ordinance of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; an ordinance of City of Worcester, Massachusetts; and, an ordinance of the Town of Irvington, New Jersey) which forbade or regulated the distribution of literature in the streets or other public places. Three of the acts took place in the streets and the fourth was through distribution of circulars by house to house visitations without a permit. On appeal, the defendants challenged their respective convictions by arguing that the municipal ordinances abridged the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and of the press secured against state invasion by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.
Did the municipal ordinances abridge the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and of the press secured against state invasion by the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution?
The Court held that the respective ordinances abridged the defendants’ rights of freedom of speech and of the press secured against state invasion. Concerning the three cases where defendants were convicted for distributing literature in the street, the Court held that the purpose of the ordinances to keep the streets clean and of good appearance was insufficient to justify prohibiting defendants from handing out literature to other persons willing to receive it. Any burden imposed upon the city authorities in cleaning and caring for the streets as an indirect consequence of such distribution resulted from the constitutional protection of the freedom of speech and press. As regards the distribution of materials from house to house without a permit, the Court ruled that the ordinance was void. The Court opined that the ordinance banned unlicensed communication of any views or the advocacy of any cause from door to door and permitted canvassing only subject to the power of a police officer to determine, as a censor, what literature could be distributed and who could distribute it.