Marsh v. Alabama (1946): Summary

Instructor: Tisha Collins Batis

Tisha is a licensed real estate agent in Texas. She holds bachelor's in legal studies and a master's degree in criminal justice.

Marsh v. Alabama (1946) was a landmark case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court after World War II. The nation was recovering from years of conflict to protect freedom, and the court system was working on cases regarding citizens' fundamental rights. This lesson will provide a summary of Marsh v. Alabama (1946) and an explanation of how this case affects us today.

Marsh v. Alabama (1946)

Not too long ago, companies owned entire towns, and police officers who patrolled those towns were paid by those big companies. A woman standing on a sidewalk in one of those towns, handing out religious flyers, made an impact on the future of America. One would never imagine that handing out religious flyers could influence a court case 50 years later between two large companies.

That is, however, precisely what happened. Ms. Marsh was that woman, and she was arrested for trespassing after refusing to leave a sidewalk located in Chickasaw, Alabama. The town was owned by Gulf Shipbuilding Corporation. The events of that day led to the case of Marsh v. Alabama (1946), which was heard by the United States Supreme Court. The significance of that case, which involved the First and Fourteenth Amendments, affects the United States today.

No trespassing sign

The Case Itself

Ms. Marsh was a Jehovah's Witness, and she chose to hand out religious flyers one day in Chickasaw, Alabama. The spot she chose to stand on was on the sidewalk by businesses in the town. There was a highway nearby, which gave the public access to the businesses. The town itself was owned by the Gulf Shipbuilding Corporation. Notices had been posted at the stores stating that the property was private and that no solicitations were allowed without written permission. Ms. Marsh was told she couldn't hand out the religious materials, and she didn't stop. She was asked to leave and refused. Ultimately, the sheriff's deputy arrested her.

From the very beginning, Ms. Marsh asserted that her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights allowed her to hand out the religious materials. The law enforcement agency and the court system did not agree. She was convicted and appealed her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The argument against Ms. Marsh was that the town was actually owned by Gulf Shipbuilding Corporation, who could control what happened on the property. Initially, this held up in court, and Ms. Marsh was convicted. Once the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case, justices saw it differently.

United States Supreme Court
supreme court

The U.S. Supreme Court compared the company owning the town to a homeowner owning his home. A homeowner wouldn't have complete control over people visiting his house just because he owned the house. This was the same with the company owning the town. Just because the company owned the town didn't mean that the company could control the people there. The people, including Ms. Marsh, still had their fundamental rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Essentially, the rights of freedom of speech and religion could not be removed simply because a company owned a town. The highway that ran close by the business area gave the public access to the business area as well, making it possible for people who were not employed by the company to enjoy the products and services that the business area had to offer. This took away some of the private town element that the state was relying on to justify the arrest of Ms. Marsh.

Significance of Marsh v. Alabama

Marsh v. Alabama was significant in its time because it was a case that involved the fundamental rights of American citizens. Under the First Amendment, there is a fundamental right to freedom of speech and religion. The Fourteenth Amendment provides the fundamental rights to due process and equal protection of the law. Ms. Marsh had a fundamental right to hand out religious materials, and she had the fundamental right to take her case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. While the company that owned the town had an interest in what Ms. Marsh did that day, it didn't have complete control over her actions simply because it owned the town. This set the standard for future cases.

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