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The Boss

By David Dayton McKean
This Web version, edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2003

Failing to obtain halls, persons who are in disfavor have sought to hold open-air meetings in streets or parks, but in so they ran into an ordinance adopted in 1930 which supreme Court in 1939 called `void upon its face,' but h had been enforced for nine years. It forbade `public assembly in or upon the public streets, highways, public parks or public buildings' without a police permit, which could be refused by the director of public safety when he thought proper `for the purpose of preventing riots, disturbances, or disorderly assemblage.' It was upon this ordinance that the C.I.O., the American Civil Liberties Union, and various individuals brought suit for an injunction in 1938.

In the late autumn of 1937 the organizers of the C.I.O. attempted without success to hire halls in Jersey City. The American Civil Liberties Union became interested and also tried unsuccessfully to obtain a meeting-place; so on December 17, 1937, they applied for a permit for an outdoor meeting on any one of various dates at any place the city would allow. A protracted correspondence with Daniel Casey, Director of Public Safety, followed in which, among other matters, he wanted to know who their speakers would be. Meanwhile a committee of veterans, most of whom were Jersey City employees, protested against the granting of any permit and, according to newspaper reports, threatened violence if a meeting should be held. After the dates had passed for which application had been made, in a letter in which he pointed out the danger of direct action from the veterans, the permit was denied by Commissioner Casey. The C.I.O. and the American Civil Liberties Union joined forces, and in January, 1938, brought a suit in equity in the United States District Court in Newark for an injunction against the Mayor and the other commissioners to compel them to issue a permit.

Meanwhile, veterans' organizations, the Chamber of Commerce, other so-called civic groups, certain religious groups, and public employees of Jersey City and Hudson County were, it is asserted, being exhorted and organized by political lieutenants and colonels to enter their protests against those who would talk, and to support Hague's policies of repression. The obvious strategy was to create a feeling of militant opposition that would spell real trouble if the meetings for which permits had been applied for were held. A parade of such a nature was held on the evening of an announced meeting at which Congressman Bernard of Minnesota and Congressman O'Connell of Montana were to speak. When it appeared that the crowd might have been aroused to a pitch of hostility that promised violence and possible bloodshed, the meeting was called off. Under similar circumstances and in a less crowded area, Mr. O'Connell was again forced to cancel a speech and was taken into `protective custody' by the police. (Report on Civil Rights of the Junior Bar Conference of the American Bar Association (1938), p. 22)

Commissioner Casey testified in Newark at the trial of the C.I.O. case that there was no public place in Jersey City, no Hyde Park or Union Square, where speeches might be made free from police interference; the police control was complete. He admitted, however, that veterans' organizations and others held parades and meetings without permits on the nights when O'Connell and Thomas were denied them. (Transcript, p. 721.) He aid further that he would deny the right of people to assemble in Journal Square `to protest against Frank Hague, even though there is to be no speaker. (Ibid., p. 715.) The Supreme Court, in its opinion, called this administration of the ordinance 'arbitrary.' While permits were denied to his opponents, the Mayor put on one of the biggest parades and rallies of his career.

As soon as a considerable amount of publicity appeared on the denial of the right to hold public meetings in Jersey City, all sorts of organizations applied for permits. The Whig-Cliosophic Society of Princeton University, a debating society, sought a permit for a speech by Senator Borah; it was denied. The Independent Speakers' Association of New York City, among whose members were Thomas E. Dewey, Fiorello La Guardia, Newbold Morris, and Joseph E. McGoldrick, applied for permission to hold an open-air meeting in May to discuss the `rights of freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution.' Their application was denied. The Hudson County Committee for Labor Defense and Civil Rights was refused permission to use Pershing Field, which is public property. (For details see Transcript, passim.)

The Socialist Party sought an open-air permit for Norman Thomas, which was denied. On April 30, 1938, he drove to Journal Square with the intention of making a speech without a permit. As soon as he got out of his automobile he was seized by the police, forcibly put into a police car, and taken to the New York ferry dock. He was held until a boat came in, and he was then put aboard. To clinch the matter, the police formed a line at the entrance to the boat to make sure that he did not jump back. He was not beaten or man-handled otherwise, though other persons in the crowd at Journal Square were not equally fortunate. Thomas tried, without success, to obtain the prosecution of the officers under the so-called Lindbergh law.

The C.I.O. and the American Civil Liberties Union obtained from District Judge William Clark in Newark the injunction they sought; Jersey City carried the case to the Circuit Court of Appeals, where it was affirmed, and to the United States Supreme Court, where it was modified but affirmed. (Frank Hague et al. v. the Committee for Industrial Organization et al., 307 U.S. 500 (1939). In its decision holding the city ordinance unconstitutional the Court said:

Wherever the title of streets and parks may rest, they have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens and discussing public questions.

Such use of the streets and public places has, from ancient times, been a part of the privileges, immunities, rights, and liberties of citizens. The privilege of a citizen of the United States to use the streets and parks for a communication of views on national questions may be regulated in the interest of all ... but it must not, in the guise of regulation be abridged or denied.... Uncontrolled official suppression of the privilege cannot be made a substitute for the duty to maintain order in connection with the exercise of the right.

Thus the Mayor's view `that public officials should inject themselves in' and consider free speech `in its proper manner' when they presume or expect `there is disorder and bloodshed in danger' was flatly rejected by the Supreme Court.


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