According to the First Amendment of the US Constitution, Congress is barred from abridging the freedom of the press (“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”). In practice, the history of press freedom is far more complicated than this simple constitutional right suggests. Over time, the meaning of the First Amendment has changed greatly. The Supreme Court largely ignored the First Amendment until the 20th century, leaving the scope of press freedom to state courts and legislatures. Since World War I, jurisprudence has greatly expanded the types of publication protected from government interference. The press now has broad rights to publish criticism of public officials, salacious material, private information, national security secrets, and much else. To understand the shifting history of press freedom, however, it is important to understand not only the expansion of formal constitutional rights but also how those rights have been shaped by such factors as economic transformations in the newspaper industry, the evolution of professional standards in the press, and the broader political and cultural relations between politicians and the press.
Courts and legislatures in colonial America and the early American republic developed and refined a power to compel civilians to assist peace and law enforcement officers in arresting wrongdoers, keeping the peace, and other matters of law enforcement. This power to command civilian cooperation was known as the posse comitatus or “power of the county.” Rooted in early modern English countryside law enforcement, the posse comitatus became an important police institution in 18th- and 19th-century America. The posse comitatus was typically composed of able-bodied white male civilians who were temporarily deputized to aid a sheriff or constable. But if this “power of the county” was insufficient, law enforcement officers were often authorized to call on the military to serve as the posse comitatus.
The posse comitatus proved particularly important in buttressing slavery in the American South. Slaveholders pushed for and especially benefited from laws that required citizens to assist in the recapture of local runaway slaves and fugitive slaves who crossed into states without slavery. Though slave patrols were rooted in the posse comitatus, the posse comitatus originated as a compulsory and noncompensated institution. Slaveholders in the American South later added financial incentives for those who acted in the place of a posse to recapture slaves on the run from their owners.
The widespread use of the posse comitatus in southern slave law became part of the national discussion about slavery during the early American republic as national lawmakers contemplated how to deal with the problem of fugitive slaves who fled to free states. This dialogue culminated with the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, in which the US Congress authorized officials to “summon and call to their aid the bystanders, or posse comitatus” and declared that “all good citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required.” During Reconstruction, the Radical Republican Congress used the posse comitatus to enforce laws that targeted conquered Confederates. After the end of Reconstruction in 1877, Southern states pushed Congress to create what would come to be known as the “Posse Comitatus Act,” which prohibited the use of federal military forces for law enforcement. The history of the posse comitatus in early America is thus best understood as a story about and an example of the centralization of government authority and its ramifications.
Risa L. Goluboff and Adam Sorensen
The crime of vagrancy has deep historical roots in American law and legal culture. Originating in 16th-century England, vagrancy laws came to the New World with the colonists and soon proliferated throughout the British colonies and, later, the United States. Vagrancy laws took myriad forms, generally making it a crime to be poor, idle, dissolute, immoral, drunk, lewd, or suspicious. Vagrancy laws often included prohibitions on loitering—wandering around without any apparent lawful purpose—though some jurisdictions criminalized loitering separately. Taken together, vaguely worded vagrancy, loitering, and suspicious persons laws targeted objectionable “out of place” people rather than any particular conduct. They served as a ubiquitous tool for maintaining hierarchy and order in American society. Their application changed alongside perceived threats to the social fabric, at different times and places targeting the unemployed, labor activists, radical orators, cultural and sexual nonconformists, racial and religious minorities, civil rights protesters, and the poor. By the mid-20th century, vagrancy laws served as the basis for hundreds of thousands of arrests every year. But over the course of just two decades, the crime of vagrancy, virtually unquestioned for four hundred years, unraveled. Profound social upheaval in the 1960s produced a concerted effort against the vagrancy regime, and in 1972, the US Supreme Court invalidated the laws. Local authorities have spent the years since looking for alternatives to the many functions vagrancy laws once served.
Law in early America came from many sources. To focus exclusively on the English common law excludes other vital sources including (but not limited to) civil law, canon law, lex mercatoria (the law merchant), and custom. Also, the number of sources increases the farther back in time one goes and the greater the geographic area under consideration.
By the 18th century, common law had come to dominate, but not snuff out, other competing legal traditions, in part due to the numerical, political, military, and linguistic advantages of its users. English colonists were well-acquainted with the common law, but after arriving in the New World, the process of adaptation to new experiences and new surroundings meant that English common law would undergo numerous alterations.
Colonists in early America had to create legal explanations for the dispossession of Native American land and the appropriation of labor by enslaved Native Americans and Africans. Their colonial charters provided that all colonial law must conform to English law, but deviations began to appear in several areas almost from the first moment of colonization. When controversies arose within the colonies, not all disagreements were settled in courts: churches and merchants provided alternative settings to arbitrate disputes. In part, other groups provided mediation because there were so few trained lawyers and judges available in 17th-century colonies. By the 18th century, however, the number of trained practitioners increased, and the sophistication of legal knowledge in the colonies grew. The majority of legal work handled by colonial lawyers concerned contracts and property.
Law and the language of rights became more widely used by early Americans as the English attempted to tighten their control over the colonists in the mid-18th century. Rights and law became firmly linked with the Revolution in the minds of Americans, so much so that law, rights, and the American Revolution continue to form an integral part of American national identity.
Christopher W. Schmidt
One of the most significant protest campaigns of the civil rights era, the lunch counter sit-in movement began on February 1, 1960 when four young African American men sat down at the whites-only lunch counter of the Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina. Refused service, the four college students sat quietly until the store closed. They continued their protest on the following days, each day joined by more fellow students. Students in other southern cities learned what was happening and started their own demonstrations, and in just weeks, lunch counter sit-ins were taking place across the South. By the end of the spring, tens of thousands of black college and high school students, joined in some cases by sympathetic white students, had joined the sit-in movement. Several thousand went to jail for their efforts after being arrested on charges of trespass, disorderly conduct, or whatever other laws southern police officers believed they could use against the protesters.
The sit-ins arrived at a critical juncture in the modern black freedom struggle. The preceding years had brought major breakthroughs, such as the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling in 1954 and the successful Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–1956, but by 1960, activists were struggling to develop next steps. The sit-in movement energized and transformed the struggle for racial equality, moving the leading edge of the movement from the courtrooms and legislative halls to the streets and putting a new, younger generation of activists on the front lines. It gave birth to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, one of the most important activist groups of the 1960s. It directed the nation’s attention to the problem of racial discrimination in private businesses that served the public, pressured business owners in scores of southern cities to open their lunch counters to African American customers, and set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations across the nation.
David S. Tanenhaus
Juvenile justice is a technical term that refers to the specific area of law and affiliated institutions, most notably the juvenile court, with jurisdiction over the cases of minors who are accused of being miscreants. Although the idea that the law should treat minors differently from adults predates the American Revolution, juvenile justice itself is a Progressive Era invention. Its institutional legitimacy rests on the power and responsibility of the state to act as a parent (parens patriae) on behalf of those who cannot care for themselves. Since the establishment of the world’s first juvenile court in Chicago in 1899, this American idea of creating separate justice systems for juveniles has spread across the nation and much of the world. For more than a century, American states have used their juvenile justice systems to respond to youth crime and delinquency. Since the 1960s, the US Supreme Court has periodically considered whether juvenile courts must provide the same constitutional due process safeguards as adult criminal courts and whether juveniles prosecuted in the criminal justice system can receive the same sentences as adults, such as the death penalty or life without the possibility of parole.
Rebecca J. Mead
Woman suffragists in the United States engaged in a sustained, difficult, and multigenerational struggle: seventy-two years elapsed between the Seneca Falls convention (1848) and the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment (1920). During these years, activists gained confidence, developed skills, mobilized resources, learned to maneuver through the political process, and built a social movement. This essay describes key turning points and addresses internal tensions as well as external obstacles in the U.S. woman suffrage movement. It identifies important strategic, tactical, and rhetorical approaches that supported women’s claims for the vote and influenced public opinion, and shows how the movement was deeply connected to contemporaneous social, economic, and political contexts.
Allison Brownell Tirres
Latino Americans have intersected with the law in complicated ways throughout American history. Latinos themselves are a diverse and heterogeneous racial, ethnic, and cultural group, with members hailing from all parts of the Spanish-speaking world and representing all variations on the spectrum of race. Each group has a unique origin story, but all have been shaped by law and legal process. Legal historians and legal scholars explore the role of law in incorporating Latino groups in American society, the effects of law on Latino communities, and the struggles of Latino lawyers, activists, and ordinary people against legal discrimination and for equality. The civil rights story of Latinos bears strong resemblance to that of African Americans: In each case, members have been subjected to de jure and de facto discrimination and social subordination. But the Latino civil rights story has unique valences, particularly in the areas of language discrimination and immigration law and policy. Latino legal history demonstrates the complex ways that Latinos interact with the color line in American law and politics.
Timothy S. Huebner
The Supreme Court of the United States stands at the head of the nation’s judicial system. Created in Article III of the Constitution of 1787 but obscured by the other branches of government during the first few decades of its history, the Court came into its own as a co-equal branch in the early 19th century. Its exercise of judicial review—the power that it claimed to determine the constitutionality of legislative acts—gave the Court a unique status as the final arbiter of the nation’s constitutional conflicts. From the slavery question during the antebellum era to abortion and gay rights in more recent times, the Court has decided cases brought to it by individual litigants, and in doing so has shaped American constitutional and legal development. Composed of unelected justices who serve “during good behavior,” the Court’s rise in stature has not gone uncontested. Throughout the nation’s history, Congress, the president, and organized interest groups have all attempted to influence the Court’s jurisdiction, composition, and decision making. The Court’s prominence reflects Americans’ historically paradoxical attitudes toward the judiciary: they have often been suspicious of the power of unelected judges at the same time that they have relied on independent judicial institutions to resolve their deepest disputes.
The reproductive experiences of women and girls in the 20th-century United States followed historical patterns shaped by the politics of race and class. Laws and policies governing reproduction generally regarded white women as legitimate reproducers and potentially fit mothers and defined women of color as unfit for reproduction and motherhood; regulations provided for rewards and punishments accordingly. In addition, public policy and public rhetoric defined “population control” as the solution to a variety of social and political problems in the United States, including poverty, immigration, the “quality” of the population, environmental degradation, and “overpopulation.” Throughout the century, nonetheless, women, communities of color, and impoverished persons challenged official efforts, at times reducing or even eliminating barriers to reproductive freedom and community survival.
Between 1900 and 1930, decades marked by increasing urbanization, industrialization, and immigration, eugenic fears of “race suicide” (concerns that white women were not having enough babies) fueled a reproductive control regime that pressured middle-class white women to reproduce robustly. At the same time, the state enacted anti-immigrant laws, undermined the integrity of Native families, and protected various forms of racial segregation and white supremacy, all of which attacked the reproductive dignity of millions of women. Also in these decades, many African American women escaped the brutal and sexually predatory Jim Crow culture of the South, and middle-class white women gained greater sexual freedom and access to reproductive health care, including contraceptive services.
During the Great Depression, the government devised the Aid to Dependent Children program to provide destitute “worthy” white mothers with government aid while often denying such supports to women of color forced to subordinate their motherhood to agricultural and domestic labor. Following World War II, as the Civil Rights movement gathered form, focus, and adherents, and as African American and other women of color claimed their rights to motherhood and social provision, white policymakers railed against “welfare queens” and defined motherhood as a class privilege, suitable only for those who could afford to give their children “advantages.” The state, invoking the “population bomb,” fought to reduce the birth rates of poor women and women of color through sterilization and mandatory contraception, among other strategies. Between 1960 and 1980, white feminists employed the consumerist language of “choice” as part of the campaign for legalized abortion, even as Native, black, Latina, immigrant, and poor women struggled to secure the right to give birth to and raise their children with dignity and safety. The last decades of the 20th century saw severe cuts in social programs designed to aid low-income mothers and their children, cuts to funding for public education and housing, court decisions that dramatically reduced poor women’s access to reproductive health care including abortion, and the emergence of a powerful, often violent, anti-abortion movement. In response, in 1994 a group of women of color activists articulated the theory of reproductive justice, splicing together “social justice” and “reproductive rights.” The resulting Reproductive Justice movement, which would become increasingly influential in the 21st century, defined reproductive health, rights, and justice as human rights due to all persons and articulated what each individual requires to achieve these rights: the right not to have children, the right to have children, and the right to the social, economic, and environmental conditions necessary to raise children in healthy, peaceful, and sustainable households and communities.