In Carlson v. California, 310 U.S. 106 (1940), the Supreme Court struck down a Shasta County, California, ordinance that prohibited loitering or picketing “for the purpose of inducing or influencing, or attempting to induce or influence” persons to enter businesses or “to refrain from purchasing or using any goods, wares, merchandise, or other articles.” The case stemmed from an incident involving Carlson, who displayed a sign discouraging individuals from entering a business. Although Carlson’s actions drew no reports of intimidation, coercion, or other acts of violence or breach of the peace, a reviewing state court affirmed his conviction.

In the opinion for the Court, Justice Francis W. Murphy relied largely on the companion decision in Thornhill v. Alabama (1940), which protected peaceful picketing, and on the “sweeping and inexact” nature of the terms loiter and picket, which he believed disclosed “the threat to freedom of speech.” He further ruled that carrying a sign or banner was no less protected than waving a flag, which the Court had upheld in Stromberg v. California (1931). Murphy observed that the county had abridged “liberty of discussion under circumstances presenting no clear and present danger of substantive evils within the allowable area of state control.” Justice James C. McReynolds dissented without an opinion.

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