By Emma Collins and Nicole Ziege, F/G Scholars
On March 2, 1961, nearly 200 African American high school and college students gathered at the Zion Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina. Together, they marched six blocks down to the state capitol building to protest racial inequality and segregation. When they arrived, they proceeded to walk around the state house for 45 minutes while a crowd of nearly 350 onlookers gathered. The city manager began to worry that the situation would become dangerous and that traffic would further be disruptive, so he asked the police officers to tell the crowd of protestors to disperse. The police complied and told the protestors they had 15 minutes to disperse or they would be arrested for disorderly conduct and breach of the peace.
Rather than disperse, the protestors increased their chanting, breaking out into song and dance as one of their leaders encouraged them to continue the peaceful protest. When the protestors failed to disperse, the police arrested all 187 protestors, and they were charged with “breach of the peace.”
The protestors appeared in city court before Judge Frank Powell. He sentenced them in groups of eight, and the punishments ranged from a fine or up to 30 days in jail. During the sentencing, he said he did not want the young people to become pawns in the Civil Rights Movement.
The lawyers for the protestors appealed the case, and it went before the Richland County Court and Judge Legare Bates. Bates affirmed all 187 convictions, and the lawyers appealed again.
The case then appeared in front of the South Carolina Supreme Court where, once again, the protestors convictions were affirmed. The South Carolina Supreme Court agreed with the state that the case was not about the protestors’ right to free expression; it was about the nature of the criminal offense. The court said the police gave ample time, in this case 15 minutes, for the protestors to disperse. Once they were told to disperse, the crowd then became disruptive, according to the state and the courts.
The lawyers appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. In its argument, the defense argued the breach of peace common law was too vague and allowed the police to abuse their powers by arbitrarily deciding what was a “breach of the peace.”
The prosecution’s argument was that the students were allowed to freely protest before being given fair notice to disperse. The prosecution also argued that there was evidence that the protestors were disrupting traffic.
The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of the protestors. Justice Potter Stewart wrote the majority opinion. In the majority opinion, the court agreed with the defense that the common law the protestors were found guilty of violating was too broad and that it allowed police officers to subjectively determine when peaceful protestors became disorderly. This law, according to the Supreme Court, was unlawful. The Court also agreed that the evidence presented showed the protestors were merely protesting an unpopular opinion and never became disruptive.
Justice Potter Stewart said, “It has long been established that these First Amendment freedoms are protected by the Fourteenth Amendment from invasion by the States … The circumstances in this case reflect an exercise of these basic constitutional rights in their most pristine and classic form.”
Justice Tom Clark was the lone justice to dissent. In his minority opinion, he agreed with the South Carolina that the protestors had become disruptive when asked to disperse, as the police officers had said. In his minority opinion, Justice Clark said he did not disagree with the Court’s decision that the protestors were allowed to protest, he just believed the protestors had been disruptive and, therefore, could legally be asked to leave and/or be arrested.
Clark said, “Petitioners, of course, had a right to peaceable assembly, to espouse their cause and to petition, but, in my view, the manner in which they exercised those rights was by no means the passive demonstration which this Court relates; rather, as the City Manager of Columbia[p239] testified, “a dangerous situation was really building up” which South Carolina’s courts expressly found had created “an actual interference with traffic and an imminently threatened disturbance of the peace of the community.”
Edwards vs. South Carolina was an important case because, at its base level, it promotes the First Amendment and the freedom to assemble and protest. The case was heard during a time when protests happened across the nation as part of the Civil Rights Movement, and it set the precedent for other Civil Rights protestors to be protected as well. The decision in favor of the protestors emboldened other protestors and affirmed the legality of their cause.
“Edwards v. South Carolina.” Cornell Law School, https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/372/229. Accessed 17 Sept. 2018.
“Edwards v. South Carolina.” Oyez, https://www.oyez.org/cases/1962/86. Accessed 17 Sept. 2018.
Hudson, David. “Freedom of Assembly and Edwards v. South Carolina: Protecting the Peaceful Expression of Unpopular Views.” Freedom Forum Institute, 30 Jan. 2017, https://www.freedomforuminstitute.org/2017/01/30/freedom-of-assembly-and-edwards-v-south-carolina-protecting-the-peaceful-expression-of-unpopular-views/. Accessed 17 Sept. 2018.