In Jamison v. Texas, 318 U.S. 413 (1943), the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Jehovah’s Witness who had violated a Dallas, Texas, ordinance prohibiting the distribution of handbills on the streets. The Court based its decision on the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of freedom of the press and religion.

Jamison was convicted for passing handbills out on the street

Jamison had been convicted in the Corporation Court of Dallas, and she appealed to the County Criminal Court. She was again convicted and fined $5.00 and costs. Under Texas law, she could appeal to no higher state court;  however, because she had raised questions of federal substance in court, she was able to appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court.

Court said city did not have the right to prohibit handbill distribution in all circumstances

In the opinion for the Court, Justice Hugo L. Black addressed the two main arguments of the city government. First, relying chiefly on Hague v. Committee for Industrial Organization (1939), he denied that the city’s authority to regulate traffic and maintain order gave it an absolute right “to prohibit the use of the streets for the communication of ideas.” Second, relying on Lovell v. City of Griffin (1938), he established that the city did not have the right to prohibit the distribution of handbills “at all times, at all places, and under all circumstances.” The fact that the handbills that Jamison was distributing contained an invitation to purchase a religious book did not immunize them from First Amendment protection.

This decision, although still a valid precedent, would not exempt the distribution of religious pamphlets from valid time, place, and manner restrictions. Justice Felix Frankfurter issued a one-sentence concurrence, and Justice Wiley B. Rutledge did not participate in the case.

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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