Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229, 235 (1963) was decided by the Supreme Court of the United States (the “Court”) in an 8-1 opinion delivered by Justice Stewart, reversing the Supreme Court of South Carolina decision to uphold the breach of the peace convictions of 187 African American students (the “protestors”) that protested segregation by marching on the State House grounds in Columbia, South Carolina. Justice Clark authored the Court’s lone dissenting opinion. As stated in Justice Stewart’s majority opinion: “The circumstances of this case reflect an exercise of . . . basic constitutional rights in their most pristine and classic form.” Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229, 235 (1963).
On March 2, 1961, the protestors met at the Zion Baptist Church in downtown Columbia. Edwards v. South Carolina, 372 U.S. 229, 230 (1963). From there, in separate groups of about 15, they walked to the South State House grounds—an area of two city blocks open to the public. Id. Having advance knowledge of the protest, 30 or more state and city law enforcement officers were positioned on the State House grounds. Id. Each group entered the grounds through the horseshoe—an adjacent driveway and parking area—and were advised by law enforcement that “they had a right, as a citizen, to go through the State House grounds, as any other citizen has, as long as they were peaceful.” Id.
The protestors’ stated purpose was “to submit a protest to the citizens of South Carolina, along with the Legislative Bodies of South Carolina, our feelings and our dissatisfaction with the present condition of discriminatory actions against Negroes, in general, and to let them know that we were dissatisfied and that we would like for the laws which prohibited Negro privileges to be removed.” Id.
Marching orderly in single file or two abreast the small groups paced the State House grounds carrying signs that read “I am proud to be a Negro” and “Down with segregation.” Id. at 231. Over the course of the march a crowd of 200 to 300 curious onlookers gathered around the horseshoe and sidewalks. Id. In its independent review of the record, the Court found that neither pedestrian nor vehicular traffic was obstructed on the grounds, and vehicles entering or leaving the horseshoe were not prevented from doing so. Id. at 231-32. The only obstructions noted were (1) that traffic at a nearby intersection was slowed somewhat requiring an officer to be dispatched and move traffic along, and (2) that there were bystanders on public sidewalks adjacent to the grounds, but they complied with requests to move. Id. at 232. The Court further observed that “[p]olice protection at the scene was at all times sufficient to meet any foreseeable possibility of disorder.” Id. at 232-33.
Against this backdrop, the law enforcement officers on-scene advised the protestors to disperse within 15 minutes or they would be arrested. Id. at 233. Instead of dispersing the protesters responded by singing “The Star Spangled Banner” and other patriotic and religious songs, while stamping their feet and clapping. Id. After 15 minutes all were arrested and marched to jail. Id.
The protestors were convicted of breach of the peace in General Sessions Court of Richland County. Id. Sentences ranged from a $10.00 fine or five days in jail to a $100.00 or 30 days in jail. Id. The protestors appealed and the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed given the “general definition of the offense.” Id. at 234; see also State v. Edwards, 123 S.E.2d 247, 249 (S.C. 1961).
The Court granted certiorari and the protestors contended (1) that under South Carolina law there was a complete absence of evidence of the commission of breach of the peace, and (2) that they were thereby denied one of the most basic elements of due process of law. Id. at 234-35 (citations omitted).
Even accepting as binding the state courts’ decision that the protestors’ conduct constituted a breach of peace under state law, the Court nevertheless stated that it had an independent duty to undertake an examination of the entire record. Id. at 235 (citations omitted). Upon that examination, the Court opined that it was clear “that in arresting, convicting, and punishing the [protestors] under the circumstances disclosed by [the] record, South Carolina infringed the [protestors’] constitutionally protected rights of free speech, free assembly, and freedom to petition for redress of their grievances.” Id. Of course, the rights and freedoms protected by the First Amendment are protected from invasion by the states through the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.
Significantly, though the offense contemplates violence or a foundation that may give rise to violence, the South Carolina Supreme Court does not reference activity to that effect. Rather, the opinion belabors the protestors’ and onlookers’ affect on vehicular and pedestrian traffic, see 123 S.E.2d at 248-250, for which there existed a discrete offense under Section 1-417 of the South Carolina 1952 Code of Laws, 123 S.E.2d at 248. Seemingly in response, the Court emphasized that the protest had been peaceful and law-abiding. Stating that “[i]f . . . the petitioners had . . . violated a law regulating traffic, or had disobeyed a law reasonably limiting the periods during which the State House grounds were open to the public, this would be a different case.” 372 U.S. at 236.
The impact of the Court’s decision in Edwards was not limited to the facts and circumstances surrounding the March 2, 1961 march on the State House grounds. Rather, the decision’s emphasis that a state cannot “make criminal the peaceful expression of unpopular views” echoed throughout the Civil Rights Movement litigation in South Carolina. See City of Rock Hill v. Henry, 135 S.E.2d 718 (S.C. 1963), rev’d 376 U.S. 776 (1964); Fields v. South Carolina, 375 U.S. 44 (1963); City of Rock Hill v. Henry, 128 S.E.2d 775 (S.C. 1962), vacated, 375 U.S. 6 (1963).