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ROSENFELD v. NEW JERSEY

June 26, 1972

ROSENFELD
v.
NEW JERSEY



Appeal from Super. Ct. N.J. Reported below: See 59 N.J. 435, 283 A. 2d 535.

[ 408 U.S. Page 902]

Judgment vacated and case remanded for reconsideration in light of Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971), and Gooding v. Wilson, 405 U.S. 518 (1972).

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER, with whom MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN and MR. JUSTICE REHNQUIST join, dissenting.*fn*

I am constrained to express my profound disagreement with what the Court does in these three cases on the basis of Gooding v. Wilson, 405 U.S. 518 (1972).

 The important underlying aspect of these cases goes really to the function of law in preserving ordered liberty. Civilized people refrain from "taking the law into their own hands" because of a belief that the government, as their agent, will take care of the problem in an organized, orderly way with as nearly a uniform response as human skills can manage. History is replete with evidence of what happens when the law cannot or does not provide a collective response for conduct so widely regarded as impermissible and intolerable.

It is barely a century since men in parts of this country carried guns constantly because the law did not afford protection. In that setting, the words used in these cases, if directed toward such an armed civilian, could well have led to death or serious bodily injury. When we undermine the general belief that the law will give protection against fighting words and profane and abusive language such as the utterances involved in these cases, we take steps to return to the law of the jungle. These three cases, like Gooding, are small but symptomatic steps. If continued, this permissiveness will tend further to erode public confidence in the law - that subtle but indispensable ingredient of ordered liberty.

[ 408 U.S. Page 903]

     In Rosenfeld's case, for example, civilized people attending such a meeting with wives and children would not likely have an instantaneous, violent response, but it does not unduly tax the imagination to think that some justifiably outraged parent whose family were exposed to the foul mouthings of the speaker would "meet him outside" and, either alone or with others, resort to the 19th century's vigorous modes of dealing with such people. I cannot see these holdings as an "advance" in human liberty but rather a retrogression to what men have struggled to escape for a long time.

MR. JUSTICE POWELL, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE and MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN join, dissenting.

It has long been established that the First and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit the States from punishing all but the most "narrowly limited classes of speech." Chaplinksy v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 571 (1942). The right of free speech, however, has never been held to be absolute at all times and under all circumstances. To so hold would sanction invasion of cherished personal rights and would deny the States the power to deal with threats to public order. As the Court noted in Chaplinsky:

"[It] is well understood that the right of free speech is not absolute at all times and under all circumstances. There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or 'fighting' words - those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are

[ 408 U.S. Page 904]

     of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality. 'Resort to epithets or personal abuse is not in any proper sense communication of information or opinion safeguarded by the Constitution, and its punishment as a criminal act would raise no question under that instrument.' Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 309-310." 315 U.S., at 571-572. (Footnotes omitted.)

This case presents an example of gross abuse of the respected privilege in this country of allowing every citizen to speak his mind. Appellant addressed a public school board meeting attended by about 150 people, approximately 40 of whom were children and 25 of whom were women. In the course of his remarks he used the adjective "m--- f/--" on four occasions, to describe the teachers, the school board, the town, and his own country.

For using this language under these circumstances, appellant was prosecuted and convicted under a New Jersey statute which provides:

"Any person who utters loud and offensive or profane or indecent language in any public street or other public place, public conveyance, or place to which the public is invited ... is a disorderly person." N.J. Rev. Stat. ยง 2A:170-29 (1) (1971).

Prior to appellant's prosecution, the Supreme Court of New Jersey had limited the statute's coverage as follows:

"[The] words must be spoken loudly, in a public place and must be of such a nature as to be likely to incite the hearer to an immediate breach of the peace or to be likely, in the light of the gender and age of the listener and the setting of the utterance, to affect the sensibilities of a hearer. The words

[ 408 U.S. Page 905]

     must be spoken with the intent to have the above effect or with a reckless disregard of the probability of the above consequences." State v. Profaci, 56 ...


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