• Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Supreme Court held that a city ordinance prohibiting the distribution of pamphlets without a permit violated the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Alma Lovell, a member of the Jehovah’s Witness Church, was prosecuted for distributing religious literature in Griffin, Georgia, without the required permission from the city commissioner. The Supreme Court had earlier applied the First Amendment guarantee of free speech to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment in Gitlow v. New York[case]Gitlow v. New York[Gitlow v. New York] (1925), but the Court had never ruled that the federal guarantee for religious freedom was binding on the states.Speech, freedom of;Lovell v. City of Griffin[Lovell v. City of Griffin]

Speaking for an 8-0 majority, Chief Justice Charles Evans HughesHughes, Charles Evans;Lovell v. City of Griffin[Lovell v. City of Griffin] wrote that the ordinance constituted a system of prior restraint on the expression of ideas. He emphasized that the First Amendment freedom of press extended to pamphlets and other modes of disseminating information and that the freedom to circulate materials was just as essential as the freedom to publish them. Hughes found that it was not necessary to consider the issue of religious freedom. A similar case, Schneider v. Irvington[case]Schneider v. Irvington[Schneider v. Irvington] (1939), was also decided under the freedom of speech and press guarantees. It was not until the third case involving the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Cantwell v. Connecticut[case]Cantwell v. Connecticut[Cantwell v. Connecticut] (1940), that the Court incorporated the freedom of religious exercise into the Fourteenth Amendment.

Incorporation doctrine

Jehovah’s Witnesses

Near v. Minnesota

Prior restraint

Speech and press, freedom of

Categories: History