Cantwell v. Connecticut Case Brief

Why is the case important?

A Jehovah’s Witnesses was convicted on a charge of breach of the peace for playing a phonograph record sharply critical of the Catholic religion to persons he encountered on the street.

Facts of the case

Newton Cantwell and his sons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, were proselytizing a predominantly Catholic neighborhood in Connecticut. They were travelling door-to-door and approaching people on the street. Two pedestrians reacted angrily to an anti-Catholic message. Cantwell and his sons were arrested and charged with: (1) violation of a Connecticut statute requiring solicitors to obtain a certificate before soliciting funds from the public, and (2) inciting a common-law breach of the peace.

Question

Did the arrest and conviction of Cantwell for violating the common law offense of breach of the peace violate his constitutional rights of free speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (Constitution)?

Answer

Yes. The lower court is reversed.
Justice Owen Roberts (J. Roberts) stated that while it is obvious that the principles of freedom of speech and religion do not sanction incitement to riot or violence, it is equally obvious that a State may not unduly suppress free communication of views under the guise of maintaining desirable conditions. With these considerations in mind, we note that there was no evidence of assaultive behavior or threatening of bodily harm, no truculent bearing, no profane, abusive, indecent remarks directed to the person of the hearer. Thus, it cannot be said that Cantwell’s actions resulted in a breach of the peace or an incitement to a breach thereof.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court held that the Connecticut statute deprived the plaintiffs of their liberty without due process of law. Under the statute, the Secretary of the Public Welfare Council was authorized to withhold his approval if he finds that a cause was not a religious one. This authority, according to the Court, was in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

  • Case Brief: 1940
  • Appellant: Newton D. Cantwell, Jesse L. Cantwell, and Russell D. Cantwell
  • Appellee: Connecticut
  • Decided by: Hughes Court

Citation: 310 US 296 (1940)
Argued: Mar 29, 1940
Decided: May 20, 1940