In 1938, Byron Thornhill, a Tuscaloosa County resident and president of a local labor union, went all the way to the United States Supreme Court to win the right to picket employers and distribute information about labor disputes. The 1940 SCOTUS decision struck down the Alabama law under which Thornhill had been arrested and imprisoned. His sacrifice made him a hero to Alabama workers and defined First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
Thornhill had been arrested for peacefully picketing and loitering at the Brown Wood Preserving Company to interfere with business during a strike by a local union affiliated with the AFL. Upon conviction in the interior Court of Tuscaloosa County, he appealed to the Circuit Court of Tuscaloosa County. He was fined $100 and costs, but refused to pay and was sentenced to prison for 59 days for not paying. Failing his appeal the circuit court increased the prison time to 73 days. The Alabama Supreme Court denied Thornhill’s petition, but the U. S. Supreme Court heard the case February 2, 1938, and decided in Thornhill’s favor April 28, 1940.
Supreme Court decision
The Supreme Court held that:
The free speech clause protects speech about the facts and circumstances of a labor dispute.
The Chief Justice, Charles E. Hughes, and Associate Justices Harlan F. Stone Owen J. Roberts, Hugo Black, Stanley F. Reed, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, and Frank Murphy presented the majority opinion with only Associate Justice James C. McReynolds dissenting.
Decision redefined the scope of the First Amendment
Seventy-seven years ago, this decision helped redefine the scope of the First Amendment, has been cited in many Freedom of Speech and Press decisions and supported by the Fourteenth Amendment.
Byron Thornhill was a hero for many people, not only in labor unions, or residents in Alabama but to those committed to a better America for all.
Published in the Tuscaloosa News February 3, 1938.