The civil rights movement gained momentum in the United States during the 1950s. The Montgomery bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., demonstrated the power of nonviolent public protest. Across the South, citizens began to demand their rights, assembling in large groups in a number of cities. "Sit-in" demonstrations, protesting Jim Crow legislation that segregated public facilities such as lunch counters and bus terminals, occurred with increasing frequency, bringing the issue of segregation into national news almost daily.
Change, when it came, came quickly. Following the Brown decision in 1954, the civil rights movement acquired momentum. Many white Americans, however, were neither prepared for, nor sympathetic to, the rapid pace of change. Particularly in the South, where a racial caste system was most pronounced, politicians and police actively sought to disrupt the demonstrations. In places like Selma and Birmingham, Alabama, the police, operating under the pretext that the demonstrations were "illegal assemblies" and "public disturbances," broke them up by wielding batons (sometimes on horseback) and firing tear gas. They also set police dogs loose on the crowds and fired water from fire hoses into columns of people, driving back row after row of protestors. Hundreds were arrested, yet throughout their struggles, the demonstrators themselves remained generally peaceful.
Nearly 200 persons, mostly young African American students, marched on the South Carolina State capitol to protest segregation in South Carolina. They marched in small, orderly groups, from nearby Mt. Zion Baptist Church, and were permitted to enter the grounds of the capitol provided that they remained peaceful. One marcher held a sign that read, "Down with segregation!" Another sign read, "You may jail our bodies but not our souls." The demonstrators listened to a powerful speech by a local pastor, sang, stamped their feet, and clapped. A crowd of less than 300 people gathered to watch the demonstration. The onlookers were peaceful and appeared more curious than hostile. The absence of any threatening remarks, hostile gestures, or offensive language suggested that the situation would remain calm.
After about 15 minutes, local police officials directed that the demonstration be stopped and that the demonstrators leave the capitol area because they were causing a disturbance. As more onlookers continued to gather, Columbia police feared they would be unable to keep them from becoming angry and violent. Testimony, however, later revealed that no "fighting words" had been spoken at the time the order to disperse was issued.
Refusing to leave, many of the civil rights protestors were arrested and tried for "breach of the peace," including Reverend Edwards, one of the leaders of the demonstration. The city manager of Columbia described the protestors as having been "loud, boisterous and flamboyant." They were convicted and fined, and Edwards appealed.
What protections did the 1st Amendment, as incorporated by the 14th Amendment into State constitutions, provide to the protest marchers? Were the protestors denied freedom of expression and the right to petition by being told to leave the capitol area? Were Columbia police abusing their power when they ordered the demonstration to disperse? Had South Carolina taken a very narrow view of exactly what constituted a "breach of the peace"? Were the convictions for "breach of the peace" unconstitutional? Was there any evidence to convict the marchers for "breach of the peace"? Had any breach of the peace been, in fact, committed?
For Edwards: Local officials failed in their duty to the protestors. Their event was a peaceful assembly, protected by the 1st Amendment. No local police official should be able to decide what public speeches should be allowed. If such power were permitted, the 1st Amendment would protect only speech of which local officials approved, and no protests at all would take place. The convictions should be overturned and the South Carolina law made more specific.
For South Carolina: Every State has a clear right to regulate in order to protect public safety. The assembly was becoming disorderly, and the surrounding crowd had become excited and angry. If the police had not acted, violence would have erupted. The leaders of the march were guilty of breach of the peace when they failed to heed the lawful orders of local police to end the rally and disperse the marchers. The convictions should be upheld.
In an 8–1 decision, the Court upheld the right of citizens to demonstrate on public property, and overturned the convictions of the protestors. Writing for the majority, Justice Potter Stewart declared that "The Fourteenth Amendment does not permit a State to make criminal the peaceful expression of unpopular views…." While he noted that "Speech is often provocative and challenging, [such speech] may strike at prejudices and preconceptions…[that indeed may] have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of a view." But, as Stewart notes, that was the whole purpose of the 1st Amendment: "[A] function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute."
The Court concluded that it was "clear to us that in arresting, convicting and punishing the petitioners under the circumstances disclosed,…South Carolina infringed the…constitutionally protected rights of free speech, free assembly, and freedom to petition for redress of their grievances."
As to the local law in question, it was "so vague as to permit punishment of the fair use of this opportunity [i.e., freedom of speech and assembly]…. It has long been established that these First Amendment freedoms are protected by the Fourteenth Amendment from invasion by the States…." The Court ruled the breach-of-the-peace statute unconstitutional.
With the Edwards decision, the Supreme Court continued the pattern of protecting unpopular speech. In Thornhill v. Alabama, 1940; Terminiello v. Chicago, 1949; NAACP v. Alabama, 1958; and later, Cox v. Louisiana, 1965, the Court upheld the right of the people "to assemble peacefully" under a variety of circumstances.