In Dombrowski v. Pfister, 380 U.S. 479 (1965), the Supreme Court decided that a court may enjoin enforcement of a statute that is so overbroad in its prohibition of unprotected speech that it substantially prohibits protected speech — especially if the statute is being enforced in bad faith.
Dombrowski’s organization was declared a communist front under Louisiana law
James A. Dombrowski was executive director of the Southern Conference Education Fund (SCEF), a civil rights advocacy group that promoted desegregation and African-American voting rights. State officials in Louisiana declared the SCEF a subversive or communist-front organization whose members were violating the Louisiana Subversive Activities and Communist Front Control Law.
Louisiana officials seized and searched Dombrowski’s and two lawyers’ papers and indicted them.
Lower court declined to rule
Dombrowski and the others sued in federal court to have the statute declared unconstitutional and enjoin its enforcement. Two of the three judges on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel declined to do so, opining that federal courts should abstain from intruding into state litigation before it has been reviewed by the state’s highest court.
The third judge dissented, arguing that the statute was facially unconstitutional and the defendants were using “the policeman’s club” to persecute Dombrowski and the others for their anti-segregationist positions. Dombrowski and the others appealed to the Supreme Court.
Court said federal courts can step in when a statute chills First Amendment expression
Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote the opinion for the five-justice majority. The Court held that although federal courts ordinarily should abstain from interfering in state litigation, even when constitutional issues are involved, they may intrude when a statute substantially chills free expression through overbroad application and when parties challenge a statute facially.
Moreover, when a statute is substantially overbroad, persons may challenge the entire statute and not just those aspects that apply to them. The Court found the Louisiana statutes to be void on their face and ordered the district court to grant the requested relief.
Dissenters thought federal courts should leave such cases to state courts
Two justices did not participate in this case. Justice John Marshall Harlan II, joined by Tom C. Clark, dissented because he thought that abstention is appropriate even when federal rights are involved as states are also bound by the Constitution.
The Court later came closer to Harlan’s view in Younger v. Harris (1971), after civil rights attorneys had attempted to circumvent state courts by filing of lawsuits in federal courts alleging that enforcement of state statutes violated the First Amendment rights of civil rights activists.
This article was originally published in 2009. Leonard W. Peck, Jr. worked in prison law, including an abundance of First Amendment issues, for the Texas prisons from 1976-2000. He was an assistant professor at Texas A&M Texarkana from 2006-2013.