Stromberg v. California 283 U.S. 359 (1931)

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STROMBERG v. CALIFORNIA 283 U.S. 359 (1931)

A California law made it a crime to display a red flag or banner "as a sign, symbol or emblem of opposition to organized government or as an invitation or stimulus to anarchistic action or as an aid to propaganda that is of a seditious character.…" A member of the Young Communist League who ran a summer camp where the daily ritual included the raising of "the workers' red flag" was convicted for violating the statute, although a state appellate court noted that the prohibition contained in the first clause—"opposition to organized government"—was so vague as to be constitutionally questionable. That court nonetheless upheld the conviction on the grounds that the defendant had been found guilty of violating the entire statute and that the other two clauses relating to "anarchistic action" and "seditious character" were sufficiently definite.

Chief Justice charles evans hughes and six other members of the Supreme Court reversed the conviction. In his opinion, Hughes pointed out that, the jury having rendered a general verdict, it was impossible to know under which clause or clauses the defendant had been convicted. If any of the three clauses were invalid, the conviction could not stand. The Court found the first clause "so vague and indefinite" that it violated the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment because it prohibited not only violent, illegal opposition to organized government but also "peaceful and orderly opposition to government by legal means.…" Justices james c. mcreynolds and pierce butler dissented.

Michael E. Parrish