Bell v. Maryland, 378 U.S. 226, (1964) arose from the criminal-trespass convictions of civil rights demonstrators who in 1960 held a “sit-in” at a Baltimore restaurant to protest its policy of racial segregation. One of the demonstrators was 16-year-old student Robert Mack Bell. On appeal, the petitioners argued that the use of Maryland’s trespassing laws to support segregation of public accommodations violated the 14th Amendment.

Court remanded case due to new discrimination laws; demonstrators were cleared

When the case finally came before the Supreme Court, the Court refused to decide whether the state’s trespassing laws could be used to exclude blacks from public accommodations. The majority decision, written by Justice William J. Brennan Jr., centered on the fact that Maryland had subsequently adopted a law making discrimination in places of public accommodation illegal and Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

According to Brennan, there was a good possibility that Maryland intended for the new law to void past convictions, and so the Court remanded the case back to the Maryland appeals court for reconsideration. On April 9, 1965, the convictions were reversed and the students were cleared of all charges.

In his concurring opinion, Justice William O. Douglas revealed his preference that the Court void the convictions outright. He cited testimony to show that the policy of segregation at the restaurant had been a simple business decision, and he asserted that the provisions of the 14th Amendment, and the constitutional right to travel, made such discrimination illegal.

Any attempts to enforce racially discriminatory policies in places of public accommodation would be similar to the enforcement of racially discriminatory covenants that the Court had outlawed in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948). Justice Arthur Goldberg took a similar tack in his concurrence.

Dissenters thought 14th Amendment did not compel businesses to desegregate

By contrast, Justice Hugo L. Black, joined by Justices John Marshall Harlan II and Byron R. White, wrote a dissenting opinion in which he argued that the 14th Amendment did not bar enforcement of a trespass law “to convict a person who comes into a privately owned restaurant, is told that because of his color he will not be served, and over the owner’s protest refused to leave.”

Focusing specifically on First Amendment issues, Black denied that the law at issue was “void for vagueness.” He observed that “it is hard to take seriously a contention that petitioners were not fully aware, before they ever entered the restaurant, that it was the restaurant owner’s firmly established policy and practice not to serve Negroes. The whole purpose of the ‘sit-in’ was to protest that policy.” Black also denied “that a person’s right to freedom of expression carries with it a right to force a private property owner to furnish his property as a platform to criticize the property owner’s use of that property.”

He took issue as well with the notion that “the Fourteenth Amendment of itself” compelled “either a black man or a white man running his own private business to trade with anyone else against his will.” He continued: “The right to freedom of expression is a right to express views — not a right to force other people to supply a platform or a pulpit.”

Justices Harlan, Black, and White filed a similar dissent in Griffin v. Maryland (1964), in which the Court majority, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, voided arrests by a deputy sheriff who had tried to enforce segregation in a private amusement park.

John Vile is 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.

Send Feedback on this article