The Supreme Court’s decision in Douglas v. City of Jeannette, 319 U.S. 157 (1943), focused on the jurisdiction of federal courts in First Amendment cases. It was decided the same day as Murdock v. Pennsylvania (1943) and Martin v. City of Struthers (1943).
Jehovah’s Witnesses claimed license requirement for door-to-door solicitations violated First Amendment
In this case, a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses claimed that the city of Jeannette’s ordinance requiring a license to engage in door-to-door solicitations violated their First Amendment rights.
After refusing to obtain such permits, they faced criminal prosecution and successfully sought an injunction in the U.S. District Court for Western Pennsylvania. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the injunction on the authority of Jones v. City of Opelika (1942). Murdock, in which the Court struck down licensing requirements similar to those in this case, subsequently overturned Jones.
Court looked at jurisdiction before intervening
Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone acknowledged that the 14th Amendment applies First Amendment guarantees to the states, but he also noted that the Court would have to establish appropriate equity jurisdiction before it intervened in the case.
Stone observed: “It is a familiar rule that courts of equity do not ordinarily restrain criminal prosecutions. No person is immune from prosecution in good faith for his alleged criminal acts.”
Federal courts should not intervene in ongoing state prosecutions except “on a showing of danger of irreparable injury ‘both great and immediate.’ ” Seeing no reason to believe that state courts would not apply the law as announced in Murdock, Stone declined to intervene.
Dissenters thought First Amendment rights did not apply to behavior in question
Justice Robert H. Jackson authored a passionate dissent, joined by Justice Felix Frankfurter, concurring in the result of this case but dissenting in Murdock v. Pennsylvania and in Martin v. City of Struthers.
Jackson concentrated on the facts of the case: Jehovah’s Witnesses had descended in force on the city of Jeannette and had been aggressive in their unlicensed door-to-door solicitations. He did not think that their behavior was analogous to the free exercise rights of individuals gathering freely in churches to hear sermons.
Jackson observed: “The First Amendment grew out of an experience which taught that society cannot trust the conscience of a majority to keep its religious zeal within the limits that a free society can tolerate. I do not think it any more intended to leave the conscience of a minority to fix its limits.”
Jackson also noted that “civil government cannot let any group ride roughshod over others simply because their ‘consciences’ tell them to do so.”
In Younger v. Harris (1971), the Court cited the principle of “comity” to affirm that federal courts should allow state courts to proceed before intervening in most First Amendment cases.
John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.