Americans have a free-speech right to pass out political leaflets without disclosing their names, the Supreme Court said Wednesday, in a ruling that threatens the California policy of requiring public disclosures in mass campaign mailings.
In a 7-2 decision, the high court said that "anonymous pamphleteering" has a long and honorable history in this country that extends back to the authors of the Federalist Papers and is as deeply ingrained as the secret ballot.
"Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority," the high court said.
In a second free-speech ruling, the justices said that beer makers have a right to list the alcohol content of their product on bottles or cans.
In a 9-0 ruling, the court struck down a 1935 federal law that made it illegal for brewers to disclose how much alcohol was in their beer.
Anticipating the ruling, the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control recently gave brewers the option of including alcohol content on beer labels.
Both First Amendment rulings follow the court's recent tendency of weighing competing interests and arriving at a common-sense conclusion. However, the pamphlet opinion fails to spell out a clear rule of law and appears almost certain to spawn litigation in the states.
As a matter of justice and common sense, the pamphlet case could not have been easier.
Ohio authorities had imposed a $100 fine on Margaret McIntyre, who stood outside a school board meeting in Westerville, Ohio, in 1988 and handed out a leaflet that she had written on her home computer. "Vote No (on) School Tax Levy," it said.
The justices had no trouble concluding that the Ohio law, which required names to appear on all political materials, violated the First Amendment.
"No form of speech is entitled to greater constitutional protection than Mrs. McIntyre's," said Justice John Paul Stevens for the court. "The speech in which (she) engaged--handing out leaflets in the advocacy of a political controversial viewpoint--is the essence of First Amendment expression."
But Stevens did not say how far this principle extends.
Lawmakers in California and nearly every other state have taken the view that the public has a right to know who is sending out campaign mailings, especially when they include inflated claims and harsh accusations.
In November, the state Supreme Court upheld a $10,000 fine against a former Santa Ana city councilman who had sent out thousands of mailers from the "Santa Ana Progress Committee" that denounced his opponent.
Under California law, candidates and political committees that mail out more than 200 pieces of election-related mail in a month must include their sponsor's name and address. The state justices upheld the law on the grounds that it did not suppress "relevant, truthful information" but that it did deter last-minute "smear attacks" on candidates.
The former Santa Ana councilman, Daniel Griset, has appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, which is likely to act on it soon in light of Wednesday's ruling in McIntyre vs. Ohio, 93-986.
"I think this (high court ruling) clearly invalidates California's attempt to regulate political speech and campaign mailers," said Darryl R. Wold, a Costa Mesa attorney who represents Griset.
But a lawyer for the state's Fair Political Practices Commission said that he is confident the measure will survive because it differs considerably from the Ohio law struck down Wednesday.
"This was the most overbroad law in the country. Ours is targeted and narrowly tailored to the problem," said Steven Churchwell, the commission's general counsel.
But a final answer may take some time. The justices most likely will tell the state Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling in Griset vs. Fair Political Practices Commission in light of Wednesday's opinion on anonymous mailers.
Justice Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist dissented and warned that the ruling will cause problems in every state.
"I can imagine no reason why an anonymous leaflet is any more honorable, as a general matter, than an anonymous phone call and an anonymous letter. It facilitates wrongdoing by eliminating accountability," Scalia complained.
The beer-labeling case concerned a law passed by Congress just after Prohibition was repealed. To head off "strength wars" among brewers, lawmakers said that alcohol content was not to be included on labels or advertisements.
But strangely, other federal laws require the listing of alcohol content on stronger beverages such as wine and whiskey.
To complicate matters further, the 21st Amendment gives states a separate and superior power to set their own rules on such matters.
Wednesday's ruling (Rubin vs. Coors Brewing, 93-1631) makes clear that, under federal law, brewers may put alcohol content on labels. It did not, however, deal with advertising.
Neither California nor the federal government allows beer makers to promote their product by stressing its alcohol level.
In other rulings, the court:
* Ordered a new trial for a Louisiana Death Row inmate because prosecutors withheld key evidence that suggested a witness may have committed the crime. Had that evidence been presented to the jury, there is a "reasonable probability" the defendant would not have been convicted, the court said on a 5-4 vote in the case (Kyles vs. Whitley, 93-7927).
* Made it harder for immigrants to delay their deportation. A person who is ordered deported by the Immigration and Naturalization Service has 90 days to file a court appeal and that deadline is not put off by a request for the INS to reconsider. The 6-3 ruling (Stone vs. INS, 93-1199) reverses a more lenient approach taken by federal courts in California.