In Taylor v. Mississippi, 319 U.S. 583 (1943), the Supreme Court struck down a 1942 Mississippi statute that provided for the imprisonment of individuals who helped “create an attitude of stubborn refusal to salute, honor or respect the flag or government of the United States, or of the state of Mississippi,” finding it in violation of the rights of free speech and press guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Mississippi convicted Jehovah's Witnesses for persuading individuals to not salute the flag

The backdrop was World War II, and Mississippi had applied the law to a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses — including R. E. Taylor — who, motivated by anti-war sentiment, had tried by word of mouth and through the distribution of literature to persuade individuals that saluting the flag was wrong. They were subsequently convicted and sentenced under the Mississippi statute to terms lasting until the end of the ongoing war but not to exceed 10 years. The Supreme Court of Mississippi affirmed, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower courts’ rulings.

Court struck down law

In an opinion for the unanimous court — issued on the same day as the Court’s famous flag salute decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette Justice Owen J. Roberts observed that the individuals had not been accused of teaching violence or sabotage and indicated that if schoolchildren could not be forced to salute the flag, then governments could not punish individuals for trying to convince others that saluting the flag was wrong. Roberts observed that the government had not questioned the sincerity of the appellants or shown that they had created any clear and present danger.

John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.

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