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Foreign Law and the First Amendment
by Floyd Abrams
Late in 1941, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion which, for the first time in our history, starkly distinguished American protection of speech from that of England.
Two union members had been convicted of assaulting nonunion truck drivers. The day before they were to be sentenced, the Los Angeles Times published an editorial urging the trial judge not to grant probation, but to punish the transgressors severely: "This community," the editorial asserted, "needs the example of their assignment to the jute mill."
Contempt of court proceedings were brought against the newspaper. California law at the time, like that of other states, was rooted in English law, under which such commentary, aimed at a judge during a trial, constituted contempt. Under English law, both then and today, such speech is punishable by massive fines or even imprisonment.
In reversing the ruling of the California courts holding the newspaper in contempt, the Supreme Court set this country on a different course. "No purpose in ratifying the Bill of Rights was clearer," Justice Hugo Black wrote, "than of securing for the people of the United States much greater freedom of . . . expression . . . than the people of Great Britain had ever enjoyed."
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