Cox v. Louisiana 1965

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Cox v. Louisiana 1965

Appellant: Reverend B. Elton Cox

Appellee: State of Louisiana

Appellant's Claim: That convicting him for leading a peaceful demonstration against segregation violated the First Amendment.

Chief Lawyer for Appellant: Carl Rochlin

Chief Lawyer for Appellee: Ralph L. Roy

Justices for the Court: Hugo Lafayette Black (in Cox I), William J. Brennan, Jr., Tom C. Clark (in Cox I), William O. Douglas, Arthur Goldberg (writing for the Court), Potter Stewart, Earl Warren

Justices Dissenting: Hugo Lafayette Black (in Cox II), Tom C. Clark (in Cox II), John Marshall Harlan II, Byron R. White

Date of Decision: January 18, 1965

Decision: Cox's convictions violated the freedoms of speech and assembly.

Significance: The Court said states cannot use public welfare laws to punish unpopular speech or to discriminate against minority viewpoints.

Stop segregation

In the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional. Segregation was the practice of separating black and white people in different facilities. After Brown, however, segregation continued in public places such as restaurants, buses, restrooms, and water fountains.

In the 1960s, African Americans such as Martin Luther King, Jr. led a civil rights movement to end segregation and achieve equality for African Americans. Public protests were a popular and important part of this movement. By gathering in public to oppose segregation and other unfair practices, protestors exercised the First Amendment freedoms of speech and assembly.

The government did not always like the civil rights protests. White Americans, who did not want African Americans to achieve equality, sometimes controlled governments. Some government officials were concerned that protests would get out of control and lead to riots and other illegal behavior. Efforts to silence civil rights protestors often interfered with First Amendment rights. That is what happened in Cox v. Louisiana.

Protests in Baton Rouge

On December 14, 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality ("CORE") organized a protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The protestors were twenty-three black students from Southern University. They picketed segregated lunch counters in Baton Rouge and urged people to boycott stores with such counters. The twenty-three students were arrested and jailed in the courthouse in Baton Rouge.

The following day, about 2,000 black students marched from Southern University to downtown Baton Rouge to protest against the arrests and segregation in general. Reverend B. Elton Cox, a member of CORE and a Congregational minister, led the students in their march. He instructed them to be orderly and peaceful.

When the group arrived downtown, two city officials approached Cox and asked him what his group was doing. Cox said they were protesting the arrests and segregation by marching to the courthouse to say prayers, sing hymns, and display signs. The officials asked Cox to disband the group and return to the university, but Cox refused.

When Cox's group arrived at the courthouse, Police Chief Wingate White asked Cox what he was doing. After Cox explained, White told him to confine the students to the sidewalk across the street from the courthouse, which Cox did. Approximately eighty police officers positioned themselves in the street between the protestors and the courthouse. A group of about 300 white people gathered in front of the courthouse to watch.

Cox's group held a peaceful protest. They said prayers and sang "God Bless America" and other songs. When the group sang, the twenty-three students jailed in the courthouse could be heard singing along with the others. Cox's group applauded loudly. Some cried. During the entire protest, many students displayed pickets urging people to boycott stores that supported segregation.

At the end of the protest, Cox announced that it was lunchtime. He urged the black students to go downtown to eat at the lunch counters reserved for white people. Cox said the students should sit there for one hour if the stores refused to serve them. Many of the white onlookers reacted by "muttering" and "grumbling."

Here comes the law

The Baton Rouge sheriff then decided that Cox was causing a breach of the peace. He used a loudspeaker to order Cox's group to break up and go home. Cox and the students refused to leave. Minutes later the police fired tear gas into the crowd, causing the people to break up and flee. After trying to calm the students, Cox was the last one to leave.

The next day Cox was arrested and charged with four offenses. At trial he was convicted of disturbing the peace, obstructing (blocking) a public passage, and picketing before a courthouse. Cox was sentenced to a total of one year and nine months in jail and fined $5,700. Cox appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which affirmed (approved) his convictions. He then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Cox argued that his convictions violated the First Amendment freedoms of speech and assembly.

No breach of the peace

The Supreme Court reversed all of Cox's convictions. Writing for the Court, Justice Arthur Goldberg explained the decision for each specific violation.

Louisiana's breach of the peace statute made it a crime to gather in public for the purpose of causing a public disturbance. The Supreme Court said that convicting Cox under that statute violated the First Amendment. The First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging [limiting] the freedom of speech . . . or the right of the people peaceably to assemble." States, including Louisiana, must obey the First Amendment under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Due Process Clause prevents state and local governments from violating a person's right to life, liberty (or freedom), and property.

The Court voted unanimously to reverse Cox's conviction for disturbing the peace. Justice Goldberg explained that the First Amendment was designed to allow people to do exactly what Cox did. It protects a person's right to gather in public to demonstrate peacefully against the government. Cox's students protested peacefully. Although they occasionally applauded or sang loudly, they did not cause violence or any other disturbance. Because punishing Cox for a peaceful protest violated the First Amendment, the Court struck down the entire breach of the peace statute as unconstitutional.

Public passages

Louisiana's public passages statute made it illegal to obstruct (block) a public sidewalk. After reviewing a video of the protest, Justice Goldberg said there was no doubt that Cox's group had blocked the entire sidewalk across the street from the courthouse. Justice Goldberg also said Louisiana was allowed to make blocking the sidewalk a crime. Even if people are exercising their right to free speech, they may not endanger public safety by blocking public walkways. The Court, however, voted 7–2 to overturn Cox's conviction under the public passages statute. The statute outlawed all obstructions, but the Court saw evidence that local officials gave some groups permission to use streets and sidewalks for parades and demonstrations. The Court said the U.S. Constitution prevents local governments from favoring some groups over others. Louisiana could not give some people permission to demonstrate but convict Cox just because it did not like the message of his protest.

Picketing before a courthouse

The Court reported its decision on the picketing charge in a second opinion, called Cox II. Writing for the Court again, Justice Goldberg explained that the Louisiana statute made it illegal to picket before a courthouse to try to influence a judge or jury. Justice Goldberg said that Louisiana is allowed to have such a law so that judges and juries will decide cases based on the evidence in court, instead of on the protests outside.

Again, however, the Court decided to overturn Cox's conviction. With a 5–4 vote, the Court said that Cox had permission to protest across the street from the courthouse. Police Chief Wingate White specifically told Cox that his group should confine itself to that area. Justice Goldberg said that it would be unfair to give Cox permission to picket on the sidewalk and then to convict him for doing so.

Four justices dissented, meaning disagreed, with this part of the Court's decision. They thought Police Chief White was trying to control a potentially violent situation. They did not agree that White gave Cox's group permission to break the law against picketing in front of a courthouse. In his dissenting opinion Justice Tom C. Clark said, "I have always been taught that this Nation was dedicated to freedom under law not under mobs."


The Cox cases reminded America about some basic rights under the First Amendment, such as the right to gather in public to protest against the government. Although the government is allowed to regulate protests for public safety, it may not allow some groups to protest and deny the right to others. Most importantly, the government may not punish a group for protesting because it does not like the group's message.


O ne of history's most famous protests against segregation happened in Montgomery, Alabama. On December 1, 1955, African American Rosa Parks was arrested for violating a segregation law by refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person. Outraged by the arrest, African Americans gathered in the basement of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was pastor. The group decided to boycott Montgomery's buses on Monday, December 5. That day, fewer than twelve of the city's 30,000 African Americans rode the public buses.

Led by Dr. King, African Americans formed the Montgomery Improvement Association to continue the boycott. For 381 days, African Americans refused to use Montgomery's public buses. People formed car-pools to provide transportation to work. Taxi cab drivers helped by charging the bus fare of ten cents per ride. That year was difficult for African Americans. Police arrested African Americans waiting at bus stops for taxis and charged them with violating public nuisance laws. Police also arrested car-poolers for minor traffic violations.

In the end, justice prevailed. In November 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Alabama's bus segregation law unconstitutional. The next month, blacks and whites rode Montgomery's buses together, sitting where they desired. For Dr. King, it was a visible beginning of his long battle for civil rights.

Suggestions for further reading

Dubovoy, Sina. Civil Rights Leaders. New York: Facts on File, 1997.

Evans, J. Edward. Freedom of Speech. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, Inc., 1990.

Farish, Leah. The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech, Religion, and the Press. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1998.

King, David C. The Right to Speak Out. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1997.

Klinker, Philip A. The First Amendment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson. Profiles in American History: Significant Events and the People Who Shaped Them. Vols. 7 and 8. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.

Pascoe, Elaine. Freedom of Expression: The Right to Speak Out in America. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1992.

Rediger, Pat. Great African Americans in Civil Rights. New York: Crabtree Publishing Co., 1996.

Steele, Philip, Philip Skele, and Penny Clarke. Freedom of Speech? New York: Franklin Watts, 1997.

Zeinert, Karen. Free Speech: From Newspapers to Music Lyrics. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1995.