United States v. Petrillo, 332 U.S. 1 (1947)

Author: Justice Reed

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United States v. Petrillo, 332 U.S. 1 (1947)

MR. JUSTICE REED, dissenting.

I dissent from the opinion and judgment of the Court. My reason for disagreement is that § 506(a)(1) of the Communications Act is too indefinite in its description of the prohibited acts to support an information or indictment for violation of its provisions. My objection is not to the words in the first paragraph of § 506 that made unlawful in labor matters the use of threats, force, violence, intimidation or duress against an employer. There is a background of experience and common understanding that ordinarily gives such words, when used in criminal statutes, sufficient definiteness to acquaint the public with the limits of the proscribed acts. When such words are used, they place upon those affected the risk of estimating incorrectly the sort of action that may ultimately be held to violate the statutes. Nash v. United States, 229 U.S. 373.

My objection is to the indefiniteness of the statutory description of the thing for which force must not be used -- that is, "to compel" a licensee under the Communications Act "to emply . . . any person or persons in excess of the number of employees needed by such licensee to perform actual services."

This criminal statute is the product of legislation directed at the control of acts deemed evil by Congress. It is one of the many regulatory acts that legislative bodies have passed in recent years to make unlawful certain practices in the field of economics that seemed contrary to the public interest.{1} These statutes made new crimes. Deeds theretofore not subject to punishment fall within the general scope of their prohibition. Common experience has not created a general understanding of their criminality. Consequently, in order to adequately inform the public of the limitations on conduct, a more precise definition of the crime is necessary to meet constitutional requirements.{2}

Anglo-American law does not punish citizens for violations of vague and uncertain statutes. There is no place in our criminal law for acts defined as detrimental to the interests of the state. A statute is invalid when "so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning." 269 U.S. at 391. It seems to me that this vice exists in this section of the challenged act. How can a man or a jury possibly know how many men are "needed" "to perform actual services" in broadcasting? What must the quality of the program be? How skillful are the employees in the performance of the their task? Does one weigh the capacity of the employee or the managerial ability of the employer? Is the desirability of short hours to spread the work to be evaluated? Or is the standard the advantage in take-home pay for overtime work?

The Government seeks to avoid the difficulty by interpreting the section. Their brief says, after considering the legislative history,

the bill was not intended to apply to mere differences of opinion as to whether men were overworked; it only fits deliverate demands for payment to additional employees made in complete disregard for the employer’s need and without any justification from the viewpoint of actually getting the employer’s business done. . . . If Paragraph (1) is read in its context, along with the succeeding paragraphs, it is clear what Congress was driving at when it characterized the Act as one to prevent extortion, as distinct from bona fide demands relating to conditions of employment.

This interpretation seems to me to fly in the face of § 506(1). There is another subsection to which the language might apply.{3} This clearly defines the prohibited acts. If the Congress wishes to fix the maximum number of employees that a licensee may employ in stations of various sizes, it may, of course, be done. Or, if it is impractical for Congress to act because of the varying situations, the number may be left to regulations of the Federal Communications Commission or other regulatory body.

This is a criminal statute. The principle that such statutes must be so written that intelligent men may know what acts of theirs will jeopardize their life, liberty or property is of importance to all. That principle requires, I think, a determination that this section of the Communications Act is invalid.

MR. JUSTICE MURPHY and MR. JUSTICE RUTLEDGE join in this dissent.


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Chicago: Reed, "Reed, J., Dissenting," United States v. Petrillo, 332 U.S. 1 (1947) in 332 U.S. 1 332 U.S. 17–332 U.S. 18. Original Sources, accessed February 9, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8EHF7UPR725LTJ3.

MLA: Reed. "Reed, J., Dissenting." United States v. Petrillo, 332 U.S. 1 (1947), in 332 U.S. 1, pp. 332 U.S. 17–332 U.S. 18. Original Sources. 9 Feb. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8EHF7UPR725LTJ3.

Harvard: Reed, 'Reed, J., Dissenting' in United States v. Petrillo, 332 U.S. 1 (1947). cited in 1947, 332 U.S. 1, pp.332 U.S. 17–332 U.S. 18. Original Sources, retrieved 9 February 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=8EHF7UPR725LTJ3.