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A group of students at Florida A&M University were arrested and jailed for protesting segregation in public theaters. The following day, Harriet Adderley and other students gathered outside the service entrance of the jailhouse to protest the arrests.
A sheriff’s deputy warned the protesters that they would be arrested unless they dispersed. The protesters refused. Adderley and other protesters who remained were arrested for trespassing. After the convictions were upheld on appeal at the state level, Adderley and the other defendants petitioned the United States Supreme Court for review.
The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether the convictions violated the protesters’ rights of free speech, assembly, petition, due process, and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. A divided Court ultimately affirmed the convictions on the ground that state governments had the right to control state property for their own lawful, nondiscriminatory uses, much like private landowners.
Thus, the Court affirmed Florida’s right to enforce its trespass statute against the protesters, so long as it did so in an evenhanded way. Nevertheless, Justice Douglas dissented strongly to argue that trespass laws should not be used to curtail the ancient and historic right to protest on public property outside centers of government, like courthouses, statehouses, and jailhouses.
Adderley v. Florida, 385 U.S. 39 (1966), remains a key precedent on the permissible limitations of expressive activity on public property.