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decided: April 26, 1937.



Hughes, Van Devanter, McReynolds, Brandeis, Sutherland, Butler, Stone, Roberts, Cardozo

Author: Roberts

[ 301 U.S. Page 243]

 MR. JUSTICE ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The appellant claims his conviction in a state court deprived him of his liberty contrary to the guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment. He assigns as error the action of the Supreme Court of Georgia in overruling his claim and refusing him a discharge upon habeas corpus. The petition for the writ, presented to the Superior Court of Fulton County, asserted the appellant was unlawfully detained by the appellee as sheriff under the supposed authority of a judgment pronouncing him guilty of attempting to incite insurrection, as defined in § 56 of the Penal Code, and sentencing him to imprisonment

[ 301 U.S. Page 244]

     for not less than eighteen nor more than twenty years. Attached were copies of the judgment and the indictment and a statement of the evidence upon which the verdict and judgment were founded. The petition alleged the judgment and sentence were void and appellant's detention illegal because the statute under which he was convicted denies and illegally restrains his freedom of speech and of assembly and is too vague and indefinite to provide a sufficiently ascertainable standard of guilt, and further alleged that there had been no adjudication by any court of the constitutional validity of the statute as applied to appellant's conduct. A writ issued. The appellee answered, demurred specially to, and moved to strike, so much of the petition as incorporated the evidence taken at the trial. At the hearing the statement of the evidence was identified and was conceded by the appellee to be full and accurate. The court denied the motion to strike, overruled the special demurrer and an objection to the admission of the trial record, decided that the statute, as construed and applied in the trial of the appellant, did not infringe his liberty of speech and of assembly but ran afoul of the Fourteenth Amendment because too vague and indefinite to provide a sufficiently ascertainable standard of guilt, and ordered the prisoner's discharge from custody. The appellee took the case to the Supreme Court of Georgia, assigning as error the ruling upon his demurrer, motion, and objection, and the decision against the validity of the statute. The appellant, in accordance with the state practice, also appealed, assigning as error the decision with respect to his right of free speech and of assembly. The two appeals were separately docketed but considered in a single opinion which reversed the judgment on the appellee's appeal and affirmed on that of the appellant,*fn1 concluding: "Under

[ 301 U.S. Page 245]

     the pleadings and the evidence, which embraced the record on the trial that resulted in the conviction, the court erred, in the habeas corpus proceeding, in refusing to remand the prisoner to the custody of the officers."

The federal questions presented, and the manner in which they arise, appear from the record of appellant's trial and conviction embodied in the petition, and from the opinions of the State Supreme Court in the criminal proceeding.

At the July Term 1932 of the Superior Court of Fulton County an indictment was returned charging against the appellant an attempt to induce others to join in combined resistance to the lawful authority of the state with intent to deny, to defeat, and to overthrow such authority by open force, violent means, and unlawful acts; alleging that insurrection was intended to be manifested and accomplished by unlawful and violent acts. The indictment specified that the attempt was made by calling and attending public assemblies and by making speeches for the purpose of organizing and establishing groups and combinations of white and colored persons under the name of the Communist Party of Atlanta for the purpose of uniting, combining, and conspiring to incite riots and to embarrass and impede the orderly processes of the courts and offering combined resistance to, and, by force and violence, overthrowing and defeating the authority of the state; that by speech and persuasion, the appellant solicited and attempted to solicit persons to join, confederate with, and become members of the Communist Party and the Young Communist League and introduced into the state and circulated, aided and assisted in introducing and circulating, booklets, papers, and other writings with the same intent and purpose. The charge was founded on § 56 of the Penal Code, one of four related sections. Section 55 defines insurrection, § 56 defines an attempt to incite insurrection, § 57 prescribes the death

[ 301 U.S. Page 246]

     penalty for conviction of the offenses described in the two preceding sections unless the jury shall recommend mercy, and § 58 penalizes, by imprisonment, the introduction and circulation of printed matter for the purpose of inciting insurrection, riot, conspiracy, etc. The sections are copied in the margin.*fn2

The appellant was brought to trial and convicted. He appealed on the ground that, under the statute as construed by the trial court in its instructions to the jury, there was no evidence to sustain a verdict of guilty. The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment upon a broader and different construction of the Act.*fn3 The appellant moved for a rehearing, contending, inter alia, that, as so construed, the statute violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The court refused to pass upon the constitutional questions thus raised, elaborated and explained its construction of the statute in its original opinion, and denied

[ 301 U.S. Page 247]

     a rehearing.*fn4 The appellant perfected an appeal to this court claiming that he had timely raised the federal questions and we, therefore, had jurisdiction to decide them. We held we were without jurisdiction.*fn5 Upon his commitment to serve his sentence he sought the writ of habeas corpus.

In the present proceeding the Superior Court and Supreme Court of Georgia have considered and disposed of the contentions based upon the Federal Constitution. The scope of a habeas corpus proceeding in the circumstances disclosed is a state and not a federal question and since the state courts treated the proceeding as properly raising issues of federal constitutional right, we have jurisdiction and all such issues are open here. We must, then, inquire whether the statute as applied in the trial denied appellant rights safeguarded by the Fourteenth Amendment.

The evidence on which the judgment rests consists of appellant's admissions and certain documents found in his possession. The appellant told the state's officers that some time prior to his arrest he joined the Communist Party in Kentucky and later came to Atlanta as a paid organizer for the party, his duties being to call meetings, to educate and disseminate information respecting the party, to distribute literature, to secure members, and to work up an organization of the party in Atlanta; and that he had held or attended three meetings called by him. He made no further admission as to what he did as an organizer, or what he said or did at the meetings. When arrested he carried a box containing documents. After he was arrested he conducted the officers to his room where additional documents and bundles of newspapers and periodicals were found, which

[ 301 U.S. Page 248]

     he stated were sent him from the headquarters of the Communist Party in New York. He gave the names of persons who were members of the organization in Atlanta, and stated he had only five or six actual members at the time of his apprehension. The stubs of membership books found in the box indicated he had enrolled more members than he stated. There was no evidence that he had distributed any of the material carried on his person and found in his room, or had taken any of it to meetings, save two circulars or appeals respecting county relief which are confessedly innocuous.

The newspapers, pamphlets, periodicals, and other documents found in his room were, so he stated, intended for distribution at his meetings. These the appellee concedes were not introduced in evidence. Certain documents in his possession when he was arrested were placed in evidence. They fall into five classes: first, receipt books showing receipts of small sums of money, pads containing certificates of contributions to the Communist Party's Presidential Election Campaign Fund, receipts for rent of a post office box, and Communist Party membership books; secondly, printed matter consisting of magazines, pamphlets, and copies of the "Daily Worker," styled the "Central Organ of the Communist Party," and the "Southern Worker," also, apparently, an official newspaper of the party; thirdly, two books, one "Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers," by George Padmore, and the other "Communism and Christianism Analyzed and Contrasted from the Marxian and Darwinian Points of View" by Rt. Rev. William Montgomery Brown, D. D.; fourthly, transcripts of minutes of meetings apparently held in Atlanta; fifthly, two circulars, one of which was prepared by the appellant and both of which had been circulated by him in Fulton County. All of these may be dismissed as irrelevant except those falling within the first and second

[ 301 U.S. Page 249]

     groups. No inference can be drawn from the possession of the books mentioned, either that they embodied the doctrines of the Communist Party or that they represented views advocated by the appellant. The minutes of meetings contain nothing indicating the purposes of the organization or any intent to overthrow organized government; on the contrary, they indicate merely discussion of relief for the unemployed. The two circulars, admittedly distributed by the appellant, had nothing to do with the Communist Party, its aims or purposes, and were not appeals to join the party but were concerned with unemployment relief in the county and included appeals to the white and negro unemployed to organize and represent the need for further county aid. They were characterized by the Supreme Court of Georgia as "more or less harmless."

The documents of the first class disclose the activity of the appellant as an organizer but, in this respect, add nothing to his admissions.

The matter appearing upon the membership blanks is innocent upon its face however foolish and pernicious the aims it suggests. Under the heading "What is the Communist Party?" this appears:

"The Party is the vanguard of the working class and consists of the best, most class conscious, most active, the most courageous members of that class. It incorporates the whole body of experience of the proletarian struggle, basing itself upon the revolutionary theory of Marxism and representing the general and lasting interests of the whole of the working class, the Party personifies the unity of proletarian principles, of proletarian will and of proletarian revolutionary action.

"We are the Party of the working class. Consequently, nearly the whole of that class (in time of war and civil war, the whole of that class) should work under the guidance of our Party, should create the closest contacts with our Party."

[ 301 U.S. Page 250]

     This vague declaration falls short of an attempt to bring about insurrection either immediately or within a reasonable time but amounts merely to a statement of ultimate ideals. The blanks, however, indicate more specific aims for which members of the Communist Party are to vote. They are to vote Communist for

"1. Unemployment and Social Insurance at the expense of the State and employers.

"2. Against Hoover's wage-cutting policy.

"3. Emergency relief for the poor farmers without restrictions by the government and banks; exemption of poor farmers from taxes and from forced collection of rents or debts.

"4. Equal rights for the Negroes and self-determination for the Black Belt.

"5. Against capitalistic terror: against all forms of suppression of the political rights of the workers.

"6. Against imperialist war; for the defense of the Chinese people and of the Soviet Union."

None of these aims is criminal upon its face. As to one, the 4th, the claim is that criminality may be found because of extrinsic facts. Those facts consist of possession by appellant of booklets and other literature of the second class illustrating the party doctrines. The State contends these show that the purposes of the Communist Party were forcible subversion of the lawful authority of Georgia. They contain, inter alia, statements to the effect that the party bases itself upon the revolutionary theory of Marxism, opposes "bosses' wars," approves of the Soviet Union, and desires the "smashing" of the National Guard, the C. M. T. C., and the R. O. T. C. But the State especially relies upon a booklet entitled "The Communist Position on the Negro Question," on the cover of which appears a map of the United States having a dark belt across certain Southern states and the

[ 301 U.S. Page 251]

     phrase "Self-Determination for the Black Belt." The booklet affirms that the source of the Communist slogan "Right of Self-Determination of the Negroes in the Black Belt" is a resolution of the Communist International on the Negro question in the United States adopted in 1930, which states that the Communist Party in the United States has been actively attempting to win increasing sympathy among the negro population, that certain things have been advocated for the benefit of the Negroes in the Northern states, but that in the Southern portion of the United States the Communist slogan must be "The Right of Self-Determination of the Negroes in the Black Belt." The resolution defines the meaning of the slogan as

"(a) Confiscation of the landed property of the white landowners and capitalists for the benefit of the negro farmers . . . Without this revolutionary measure, without the agrarian revolution, the right of self-determination of the Negro population would be only a Utopia or, at best, would remain only on paper without changing in any way the actual enslavement."

"(b) Establishment of the State Unity of the Black Belt . . . If the right of self-determination of the Negroes is to be put into force, it is necessary wherever possible to bring together into one governmental unit all districts of the South where the majority of the settled population consists of negroes . . ."

"(c) Right of Self-Determination. This means complete and unlimited right of the negro majority to exercise governmental authority in the entire territory of the Black Belt, as well as to decide upon the relations between their territory and other nations, particularly the United States . . . First of all, true right to self-determination means that the negro majority and not the white minority in the entire territory of the administratively

[ 301 U.S. Page 252]

     united Black Belt exercises the right of administering governmental, legislative, and judicial authority. At the present time all this power is concentrated in the hands of the white bourgeoisie and landlords. It is they who appoint all officials, it is they who dispose of public property, it is they who determine the taxes, it is they who govern and make the laws. Therefore, the overthrow of this class rule in the Black Belt is unconditionally necessary in the struggle for the negroes' right to self-determination. This, however, means at the same time the overthrow of the yoke of American imperialism in the Black Belt on which the forces of the local white bourgeoisie depend. Only in this way, only if the negro population of the Black Belt wins its freedom from American imperialism even to the point of deciding itself the relations between its country and other governments, especially the United States, will it win real and complete self-determination. One should demand from the beginning that no armed forces of American imperialism should remain on the territory of the Black Belt."

Further statements appearing in the pamphlet are:

"Even if the situation does not yet warrant the raising of the question of uprising, one should not limit oneself at present to propaganda for the demand, 'Right to Self-Determination,' but should organize mass actions, such as demonstrations, strikes, tax boycott movements, etc."

"One cannot deny that it is just possible for the negro population of the Black Belt to win the right to self-determination during capitalism; but it is perfectly clear and indubitable that this is possible only through successful revolutionary struggle for power against the American bourgeoisie, through wresting the negroes' right of self-determination from American imperialism. Thus, the slogan of right to self-determination is a real slogan of National Rebellion which, to be considered as such, need

[ 301 U.S. Page 253]

     not be supplemented by proclaiming struggle for the complete separation of the negro zone, at least not at present."

There is more of the same purport, particularly references to the "revolutionary trade unions in the South," "revolutionary struggle against the ruling white bourgeoisie," and "revolutionary program of the Communist Party."

There is no evidence the appellant distributed any writings or printed matter found in the box he carried when arrested, or any other advocating forcible subversion of governmental authority. There is no evidence the appellant advocated, by speech or written word, at meetings or elsewhere, any doctrine or action implying such forcible subversion. There is evidence tending to prove that the appellant held meetings for the purpose of recruiting members of the Communist Party and solicited contributions for the support of that party and there is proof of the doctrines which that party espouses. Appellant's intent to incite insurrection, if it is to be found, must rest upon his procuring members for the Communist Party and his possession of that party's literature when he was arrested.

Section 55 of the Georgia Penal Code defines insurrection as "combined resistance to the lawful authority of the State, with intent to the denial thereof, when the same is manifested or intended to be manifested by acts of violence."*fn6 The appellant was not indicted under this section. Section 58 denounces the introduction, printing, or circulation, or assisting to print or circulate any document "for the purpose of inciting insurrection." The appellant was not indicted under this section.

Section 56, under which the indictment is laid, makes no reference to force or violence except by the phrase

[ 301 U.S. Page 254]

     "combined resistance to the lawful authority of the State." The Supreme Court evidently importing from the similar phraseology in § 55 the additional element contained in that section, namely, "manifested or intended to be manifested by acts of violence," has decided that intended resort to force is an essential element of the offense defined by § 56.

To ascertain how the Act is held to apply to the appellant's conduct we turn to the rulings of the state courts in his case. The trial court instructed the jury: "In order to convict the defendant, . . . it must appear clearly by the evidence that immediate serious violence against the State of Georgia was to be expected or advocated." The jury rendered a verdict of guilty. In the Supreme Court the appellant urged that the evidence was wholly insufficient to ...

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