The Supreme Court and Libel

By Clifton O. Lawhorne | Go to book overview

2/ Revised View of the Constitution
State Press Decisions Can Be Nullified

The philosophy of states' rights began to change rather rapidly after World War I, which had forced people to look to Washington, D.C., not their state capitals, for leadership. The war had brought national conscription, national price fixing, nationalization of the railways, and national control of utterances and publications considered disloyal.1 And in the wake of the war, amendments to the United States Constitution nationalized the women's right to vote and instituted national Prohibition.2 Nationalization was everywhere.3 At first there was national prosperity but following the stock market crash of 1929, national depression. Then with Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration in 1932 came a national New Deal, accompanied by the National Industrial Recovery Act, the national Works Progress Administration and the national Social Security Act. It is no wonder, then, that in the midst of all this the Supreme Court of the United States nationalized the constitutional guarantees of free speech and press.

The old view of the Constitution, that it did not apply to state restrictions on press freedom, went by the wayside in 1925. The occasion came when Benjamin Gitlow, business manager of a radical newspaper, Revolutionary Age, appealed a New York conviction for publishing the "Left Wing Manifesto." The New York state courts had held that this violated the state Criminal Anarchy Act, and his appeal to the United States Supreme Court claimed the conviction violated his press freedom.

For the first time in history the Supreme Court ruled that it had the power to review state court decisions concerning the press to determine if freedom had been violated. In this landmark decision, Gitlow v. New York, the Court said it was "assumed" that freedom

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