The unanimous Supreme Court decision in Garner v. Louisiana, 368 U.S. 157 (1961), voided the application of a Louisiana breach of the peace statute to peaceful sit-in demonstrations, such as those at department store lunch counters. It was the first case before the Court to deal with the constitutionality of regulations on sit-ins, an important method of protest during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Chief Justice Earl Warren’s opinion for the Court found the convictions to be so lacking in evidence as to have violated due process. He noted that Louisiana courts had limited previous applications of the law to cases that either involved loud or aggressive behavior or were likely to provoke violence. Here he saw no evidence that the demonstrators had engaged in such provocative behavior.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Felix Frankfurter also failed to find such behavior criminal. William O. Douglas based his concurring opinion on the public interest in securing places of public accommodation against racial segregation. John Marshall Harlan II based his concurrence on First Amendment principles as illustrated in Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940), in which the Court had upheld the rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses to conduct door-to-door canvassing. The facts clearly indicated that the petitioners were engaged in expressive conduct that was just as protected as the display of a red flag in Stromberg v. California (1931). Louisiana had not drawn or applied its breach of the peace law narrowly so as only to apply it when it presented a clear and present danger; the law was too vague and uncertain in its application.

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