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Adderley v. Florida

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Significance: Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black underscored a distinction between speech and action in upholding the conviction of civil rights demonstrators.


Justice Hugo L. Black, writing for a five-member majority, upheld the conviction of civil rights protesters who demonstrated directly on the grounds of a county jail in Tallahassee, Florida, where demonstrations had never been permitted. Reading the First Amendment literally, Black found that it allowed a government to protect jails and courthouses from demonstrations if it did so consistently. Assembly, he argued, is not an absolute right but conditioned by the inclusion of the word “peaceably” in the First Amendment. Although often regarded as a civil libertarian, Black disappointed many liberals with his opinion in this case. His critics failed to perceive that his so-called “absolute standard” was logically compatible with a distinction between speech, which was absolutely protected, and assembly, which was limited by the Constitution's use of the word “peaceably” and could never be so absolutely protected. Justice William O. Douglas, Black's frequent partner in dissent, disagreed with him in this case and was joined by Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justices William J. Brennan, Jr., and Abe Fortas.