Edwards v. South Carolina

RESPONDENT: South Carolina
LOCATION: South Carolina State House

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1962-1965)

CITATION: 372 US 229 (1963)
ARGUED: Dec 13, 1962
DECIDED: Feb 25, 1963

Facts of the case

The 187 petitioners in this case, all of whom were black, organized a march to the South Carolina State House grounds in which small groups of fifteen would walk in an open public area protesting the policies of segregation in their state. The march was peaceful, did not block pedestrian or vehicular traffic, and was conducted in an orderly fashion on public property. A group of approximately thirty police officers confronted the group and ordered its members to disperse or to submit to arrest. The marchers did not disperse, and instead began singing religious and patriotic songs like the Star Spangled Banner. They were arrested and later convicted on a charge of breach of the peace.


Did the arrests and convictions of the marchers violate their freedom of speech, assembly, and petition for redress of their grievances as protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments?

Media for Edwards v. South Carolina

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 13, 1962 in Edwards v. South Carolina

Earl Warren:

Number 86, James Edwards, Jr., et al., versus South Carolina.

Mr. Greenberg.

Jack Greenberg:

May it please the Court.

This case involves the conviction of 187 Negro students in Columbia, South Carolina for a common law breach of the peace for having engaged in a demonstration at and around the Columbia, South Carolina State House.

And here behind me is an aerial photograph of the area in question which is not in the record, but which counsel for respondent have agreed with us would be helpful for the Court’s understanding of what happened in the case, and I may refer to it during the course of the argument.

These demonstrations took place in March of 1960 at the time of the various sit-in and other related demonstrations in the South at that time.

And it would be useful at the outset to read the definition of common law breach of the peace which has been adopted by the Supreme Court of South Carolina, and that appears in its opinion on page 200 of the record -- its opinion in turn quotes American jurisprudence.

In general term --

Hugo L. Black:

Page 200?

Jack Greenberg:

200 of the printed record.

In general terms, a breach of the peace is a violation of public order, a disturbance of the public tranquility by any act or conduct inciting to violence.

It includes any violation of any law enacted to preserve peace and good order.

It may consist of an act of violence or an act likely to produce violence, and I stress in that reading the repeated use of the word violence.

Now, the warrant under which the petitioners were charged appears in the record at three places at pages 2 and 3, at page 126, and at page 183.

And it was read into the record by the Court rather than having been copied by the stenographer and there are some slight immaterial variations at each point.

However, for purposes the warrant as read on pages 2 and 3 are adequate and it concludes commencing at the last three words on page 2, on the state capital ground, on adjacent sidewalks and streets, did commit a breach of the peace and that they, together with a large group of people, had assembled and impede the normal traffic, singing and parading with placards, failed to disperse upon lawful orders of police officer, all of which tended directly to immediate violence and breach of the peace in view of the existing condition.

Potter Stewart:

Where else would you say that appears in the record?

Jack Greenberg:

On page 126 and on page 183.

It appears in its fullest form on 183 but the language -- on 126, I might indicate here is an obvious stenographic error and that the word violation appears instead of violence.

Again, I stress that the rule of law under which petitioners were convicted, contemplates violence and the warrants with which they were charged contemplate violence.

Now, the Circuit Court opinion, that is the intermediate appellate court opinion, also suggests that there was violence, but not so strongly.

On pages 193 and 194, there is a discussion of the reason why the conviction should be upheld, and at page 194 is the -- what I would call suggestion of violence at the end of the first full paragraph.

While it is a constitutional right to assemble in a hall to espouse any cause, no person has the right to organize demonstrations which any ordinary and reasonable thinking citizen know or reasonably should know would stir up passions and create incidence of disorder.

And so, the concept of violence at this stage of the litigation is now being watered down.

And when we reach the State Supreme Court where the conviction finally is affirmed, there is no mention of violence whatsoever in the affirmance, which we -- a pertinent portion of which we may find on page 201.

In the large paragraph on that page, the third one at the end, the State Supreme Court opposed the convictions below on these terms.

The orders of the police officers under all of the facts and circumstances were reasonable and motivated solely by a proper concern for the preservation of order and prevention of further interference with traffic upon the public streets and sidewalks.

The appellants not only refused to heed and obey the reasonable orders of the police, but engaged in a 15-minute noisy demonstration in defiance of such orders.

And so the conviction which originally was based on a rule of law, contemplating violence and a warrant charging violence ultimately is upheld on the basis of a State Supreme Court finding of interference with traffic and making noise.

I noticed in your brief [Inaudible]