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Feiner v. New York
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Supreme Court of the United States
Argued October 17, 1950
Decided January 15, 1951
Full case name Irving Feiner v. New York
Citations 340 U.S. 315 (more)
71 S. Ct. 303; 95 L. Ed. 295; 1951 U.S. LEXIS 2249
Prior history 300 N. Y. 391, 91 N. E. 2d 316; certiorari to the Court of Appeals of New York
The conviction is sustained against a claim that it violated petitioner's right of free speech under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Vinson, joined by Reed, Jackson, Burton, Clark
Concurrence Frankfurter
Dissent Black
Dissent Douglas, joined by Minton
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amends I, XIV

Feiner v. New York, 340 US 315 (1951)[1] was a United States Supreme Court case involving Irving Feiner's arrest for a violation of section 722 of the New York Penal Code, "inciting a breach of the peace," as he addressed a crowd on a street.



On the evening of March 8, 1949, Irving Feiner was arrested after making an inflammatory speech to a mixed crowd of 75 or 80 African Americans and white people at the corner of South McBride and Harrison Streets in Syracuse, New York. Feiner, a college student,[1] had been standing on a large wooden box on the sidewalk, addressing a crowd through a loud-speaker system attached to an automobile. He made derogatory remarks about President Harry S. Truman, the American Legion, the Mayor of Syracuse and other local political officials and urged that African Americans rise up in arms and fight for equal rights. The crowd, which blocked the sidewalk and overflowed into the street in which there was oncoming traffic, became restless, with some in the crowd voicing both opposition and support for Feiner. An onlooker threatened violence if the police did not act. After having observed the situation for some time without interference, police officers, in order to prevent a fight, requested the petitioner to get off the box and stop speaking. After his third refusal, they arrested him, and he was convicted of violating 722 of the Penal Code of New York, which, in effect, forbids incitement of a breach of the peace.[2] Feiner claimed that his conviction violated his right of free speech under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

The decision

In a 6-3 decision delivered by Justice Vinson, the Supreme Court upheld Feiner's arrest.

Focusing on the "rise up in arms and fight for their rights" part of Feiner's speech, the Court found that Feiner's First Amendment rights were not violated, because his arrest came when the police thought that a riot might occur. The Court found that the police did not attempt to suppress Feiner's message based on its content, but rather on the reaction of the crowd. The Court reaffirmed the fact that a speaker cannot be arrested for the content of his speech. The Court also reaffirmed the fact that the police must not be used as an instrument to silence unpopular views, but must be used to silence a speaker who is trying to incite a riot.

The dissent

Justice Black wrote a foresighted dissent, in part pointing out that the police, instead of arresting Feiner, should have probably protected him from hostile members of the crowd.

Justice Douglas, joined by Justice Minton, additionally did not believe the situation constituted a disturbance of the peace, and questioned the fairness of the trial Feiner received.


As a result of his conviction, Syracuse University expelled Mr. Feiner. He finally completed his degree from Syracuse when they readmitted him, and was invited back to the school to speak at the opening of the Tully Center for Free Speech in October 2006. He continued to fight for tuition reimbursement, as his original schooling had been covered under the GI Bill. Following the court ruling, Feiner tried to work on a local newspaper but was fired after the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sent agents to the small town office and informed the editor of Feiner's "criminal" past. The FBI continued to haunt Feiner's life; he enjoyed telling his family and friends of an incident in which agents would not get off his property, so his wife, Trudy, sprayed them with a garden hose.

Irving Feiner lived in Nyack, New York where he had been a small business owner. He continued to fight and write about freedom of speech and progressive issues, including squaring off, on First Amendment grounds, against Stephen Baldwin, who fought to keep an adult bookstore from opening in the village. He had two adult daughters, Susan and Emily, and five grandchildren: Lisa, Dana, and Laurie Roberts, and Rebecca and Jeremy Feiner Blair. Born in 1924, Mr. Feiner was 84 years old and was involved in school/property tax reform and fighting a planned village parking garage when he died on January 23, 2009.[3]


Lectures at Rutgers University

At the invitation of renowned Professor of Political Science, Milton Heumann, Feiner gave several surprise guest lectures to students of Professor Heumann's Civil Liberties class at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. Those lectures took place on February 14, 2006 and February 12, 2008. Feiner explained his side of the case, contending that some of the facts found in the Supreme Court's decision were mistaken or that some facts were omitted. For example, the only witnesses that the prosecution called were the two arresting officers. The infamous "S.O.B." man was never called as a witness. Feiner also explained that shortly after V-E day he was in Paris where he saw a V-E parade in which marchers marched with locked arms. Feiner claims that in his speech the night he was arrested he said "the Negroes of this town should march with locked arms down to the mayor's office and demand their rights." As a result of this case, the University of Iowa Law school retracted its offer of admission.

It should be noted that in this instance, the Supreme Court only dealt with matters of law and not with matters of fact. Matters of fact are usually established in lower trial courts, and the Supreme Court generally makes its decisions based on the lower courts' findings.


  1. ^ [Feiner v. New York, 340 U.S. 315, 322]
  2. ^ [Feiner v. New York, 340 U.S. 315, 317-318]
  3. ^ Martin, Douglas (2 February 2009). "Irving Feiner, 84, Central Figure in Constitutional Free-Speech Case, Is Dead". The New York Times.  

See also

External links


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