William O. Douglas

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The way to combat noxious ideas is with other ideas. The way to combat falsehoods is with truth.

William Orville Douglas (16 October 189819 January 1980) was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. With a term lasting 36 years and 209 days, he is the longest-serving justice in the history of the Supreme Court.


We need to be bold and adventurous in our thinking in order to survive.
The liberties of none are safe unless the liberties of all are protected.
The Court's great power is its ability to educate, to provide moral leadership.
The struggle is always between the individual and his sacred right to express himself and the power structure that seeks conformity, suppression, and obedience.
As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air — however slight — lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.

Judicial opinions

  • The whole, though larger than any of its parts, does not necessarily obscure their separate identities.
    • Writing for the court, United States v. Powers, 307 U.S. 214 (1939).
  • Religious experiences which are as real as life to some may be incomprehensible to others.
  • We have here the problem of bigness. Its lesson should by now have been burned into our memory by Brandeis. The Curse of Bigness' shows how size can become a menace – both industrial and social. It can be an industrial menace because it creates gross inequalities against existing or putative competitors. It can be a social menace – because of its control of prices. Control of prices in the steel industry is powerful leverage on our economy. For the price of steel determines the price of hundreds of other articles. Our price level determines in large measure whether we have prosperity or depression – an economy of abundance or scarcity. Size in steel should therefore be jealously watched. In final analysis, size in steel is the measure of the power of a handful of men over our economy. That power can be utilized with lightning speed. It can be benign or it can be dangerous. The philosophy of the Sherman Act is that it should not exist. For all power tends to develop into a government in itself. Power that controls the economy should be in the hands of elected representatives of the people, not in the hands of an industrial oligarchy. Industrial power should be decentralized. It should be scattered into many hands so that the fortunes of the people will not be dependent on the whim or caprice, the political prejudices, the emotional stability of a few self-appointed men. The fact that they are not vicious men but respectable and social minded is irrelevant. That is the philosophy and the command of the Sherman Act. It is founded on a theory of hostility to the concentration in private hands of power so great that only a government of the people should have it.
    • Dissenting, United States v. Columbia Steel Co., 334 U.S. 495 (1948).
  • A function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purposes when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea.
  • Absolute discretion is a ruthless master. It is more destructive of freedom than any of man's other inventions.
  • Our recent decisions make plain that we do not sit as a super-legislature to weigh the wisdom of legislation nor to decide whether the policy which it expresses offends the public welfare.
    • Writing for the court, Day-Brite Lighting, Inc. v. Missouri, 342 U.S. 421 (1952).
  • We need to be bold and adventurous in our thinking in order to survive.
    • Dissenting, Adler v. Board of Education of City of New York, 342 U.S. 511 (1952).
  • We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.
  • All executive power – from the reign of ancient kings to the rule of modern dictators – has the outward appearance of efficiency.
  • When a legislature undertakes to proscribe the exercise of a citizen's constitutional right to free speech, it acts lawlessly; and the citizen can take matters in his own hands and proceed on the basis that such a law is no law at all.
  • No matter what the legislature may say, a man has the right to make his speech, print his handbill, compose his newspaper, and deliver his sermon without asking anyone's permission. The contrary suggestion is abhorrent to our traditions.
    • Dissenting, Poulos v. New Hampshire, 345 U.S. 395 (1953).
  • The critical point is that the Constitution places the right of silence beyond the reach of government.
  • Free speech is not to be regulated like diseased cattle and impure butter. The audience … that hissed yesterday may applaud today, even for the same performance.
  • That seems to us to be the common sense of the matter; and common sense often makes good law.
    • Writing for the court, Peak v. United States, 353 U.S. 43 (1957).
  • Literature should not be suppressed merely because it offends the moral code of the censor.
  • Any test that turns on what is offensive to the community's standards is too loose, too capricious, too destructive of freedom of expression to be squared with the First Amendment. Under that test, juries can censor, suppress, and punish what they don’t like, provided the matter relates to "sexual impurity" or has a tendency "to excite lustful thoughts". This is community censorship in one of its worst forms. It creates a regime where in the battle between the literati and the Philistines, the Philistines are certain to win.
    • Dissenting, Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, 512 (1957).
  • The Constitution favors no racial group, no political or social group.
    • Dissenting, Uphaus v. Wyman, 364 U.S. 388, 406 (1960).
  • We deal with a right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights -- older than our political parties, older than our school system. Marriage is a coming together for better or for worse, hopefully enduring, and intimate to the degree of being sacred. It is an association that promotes a way of life, not causes; a harmony in living, not political faiths; a bilateral loyalty, not commercial or social projects. Yet it is an association for as noble a purpose as any involved in our prior decisions.
  • We are rapidly entering the age of no privacy, where everyone is open to surveillance at all times; where there are no secrets from government.
    • Dissenting, Osborn v. United States, 385 U.S. 341 (1966).
  • These examples and many others demonstrate an alarming trend whereby the privacy and dignity of our citizens is being whittled away by sometimes imperceptible steps. Taken individually, each step may be of little consequence. But when viewed as a whole, there begins to emerge a society quite unlike any we have seen -- a society in which government may intrude into the secret regions of man's life at will.
    • Dissenting, Osborn v. United States, 385 U.S. 323, 343 (1966).
  • The critical question of "standing" would be simplified and also put neatly in focus if we fashioned a federal rule that allowed environmental issues to be litigated before federal agencies or federal courts in the name of the inanimate object about to be despoiled, defaced, or invaded by roads and bulldozers and where injury is the subject of public outrage. Contemporary public concern for protecting nature's ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation. This suit would therefore be more properly labeled as Mineral King v. Morton.
    • Dissenting, Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727 (1972).
    • Often referred to as Douglas' "trees have standing" case.
  • Inanimate objects are sometimes parties in litigation. A ship has a legal personality, a fiction found useful for maritime purposes. The corporation sole – a creature of ecclesiastical law – is an acceptable adversary and large fortunes ride on its cases....So it should be as respects valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air that feels the destructive pressures of modern technology and modern life. The river, for example, is the living symbol of all the life it sustains or nourishes – fish, aquatic insects, water ouzels, otter, fisher, deer, elk, bear, and all other animals, including man, who are dependent on it or who enjoy it for its sight, its sound, or its life. The river as plaintiff speaks for the ecological unit of life that is part of it."
    • Dissenting, Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727 (1972).
  • He was, however, speaking to a representative of government, the police. And it is to government that one goes 'for a redress of grievances,' to use an almost forgotten phrase of the First Amendment. But it is said that the purpose was 'to cause inconvenience and annoyance.' Since when have we Americans been expected to bow submissively to authority and speak with awe and reverence to those who represent us? The constitutional theory is that we the people are the sovereigns, the state and federal officials only our agents. We who have the final word can speak softly or angrily. We can seek to challenge and annoy, as we need not stay docile and quiet.
    • Dissenting, Colten v. Kentucky, 407 U.S. 104 (1972).
  • This case involves a cancer in our body politic. It is a measure of the disease which afflicts us. Army surveillance, like Army regimentation, is at war with the principles of the First Amendment. Those who already walk submissively will say there is no cause for alarm. But submissiveness is not our heritage. The First Amendment was designed to allow rebellion to remain as our heritage. The Constitution was designed to keep government off the backs of the people. The Bill of Rights was added to keep the precincts of belief and expression, of the press, of political and social activities free from surveillance. The Bill of Rights was designed to keep agents of government and official eavesdroppers away from assemblies of people. The aim was to allow men to be free and independent and to assert their rights against government. There can be no influence more paralyzing of that objective than Army surveillance. When an intelligence officer looks over every nonconformist's shoulder in the library, or walks invisibly by his side in a picket line, or infiltrates his club, the America once extolled as the voice of liberty heard around the world no longer is cast in the image which Jefferson and Madison designed, but more in the Russian image.
  • When man was first in the jungle, he took care of himself. When he entered a societal group, controls were necessarily imposed. But our society -- unlike most in the world -- presupposes that freedom and liberty are in a frame of reference that makes the individual, not government, the keeper of his tastes, beliefs, and ideas. That is the philosophy of the First Amendment; and it is the article of faith that sets us apart from most nations in the world.
  • For there is no constitutional right for any race to be preferred... If discrimination based on race is constitutionally permissible when those who hold the reins can come up with "compelling" reasons to justify it, then constitutional guarantees acquire an accordion-like quality.
  • The purpose of the University of Washington cannot be to produce black lawyers for blacks, Polish lawyers for Poles, Jewish lawyers for Jews, Irish lawyers for Irish. It should be to produce good lawyers for Americans and not to place First Amendment barriers against anyone.
    • Dissenting, DeFunis v. Odegaard, 416 U.S. 342 (1974).
  • The rules when the giants play are the same as when the pygmies enter the market.
    • Dissenting, Scherk v. Alberto-Culver Co., 417 U.S. 506, 526 (1974).

Other speeches and writings

  • One aspect of modern life which has gone far to stifle men is the rapid growth of tremendous corporations. Enormous spiritual sacrifices are made in the transformation of shopkeepers into employees... The disappearance of free enterprise has led to a submergence of the individual in the impersonal corporation in much the same manner as he has been submerged in the state in other lands.
    • Speech at annual dinner of Fordham University Alumni Association, New York City (February 9, 1939), reported in James Allen, Democracy and Finance (1940, reprinted 1969), p. 291. This was Douglas's last speech as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission before his appointment to the Supreme Court.
  • The law is not a series of calculating machines where answers come tumbling out when the right levers are pushed.
    • "The Dissent: A Safeguard of Democracy," 32 Journal of the American Judicial Society 104, 105 (1948).
  • It is our attitude toward free thought and free expression that will determine our fate. There must be no limit on the range of temperate discussion, no limits on thought. No subject must be taboo. No censor must preside at our assemblies. We need all the ingenuity we possess to avert the holocaust.
    • "The One Un-American Act," Speech to the Author's Guild Council in New York, on receiving the 1951 Lauterbach Award.
  • These days I see America identified more and more with material things, less and less with spiritual standards. These days I see America acting abroad as an arrogant, selfish, greedy nation interested only in guns and dollars, not in people and their hopes and aspirations. We need a faith that dedicates us to something bigger and more important than ourselves or our possessions. Only if we have that faith will we be able to guide the destiny of nations in this the most critical period of world history.
  • Once the government can demand of a publisher the names of the purchasers of his publication, the free press as we know it disappears. Then the spectre of a government agent will look over the shoulder of everyone who reads. ... Fear of criticism goes with every person into the bookstall. The subtle, imponderable pressures of the orthodox lay hold. Some will fear to read what is unpopular, what the powers-that-be dislike. ... fear will take the place of freedom in the libraries, book stores, and homes in the land."
  • The right to revolt has sources deep in our history.
    • An Almanac of Liberty (1954), p. 107.
  • The Fifth Amendment is an old friend and a good friend, one of the great landmarks in men's struggle to be free of tyranny, to be decent and civilized.
    • An Almanac of Liberty (1954), p. 238.
  • Those in power need checks and restraints lest they come to identify the common good for their own tastes and desires, and their continuation in office as essential to the preservation of the nation.
    • We the Judges: Studies in American and Indian Constitutional Law from Marshall to Mukherjea, New York: Doubleday (1956) p. 256.
  • The right to dissent is the only thing that makes life tolerable for a judge of an appellate court... the affairs of government could not be conducted by democratic standards without it.
    • America Challenged (1960), p. 4.
  • The liberties of none are safe unless the liberties of all are protected.
    • A Living Bill of Rights (1961), p. 64.
  • The way to combat noxious ideas is with other ideas. The way to combat falsehoods is with truth.
  • Christianity has sufficient inner strength to survive and flourish on its own. It does not need state subsidies, nor state privileges, nor state prestige. The more it obtains state support the greater it curtails human freedom.
    • The Bible and the Schools‎ (1966), p. 58.
  • I've often thought that if our zoning boards could be put in charge of botanists, of zoologists and geologists, and people who know about the earth, we would have much more wisdom in such planning than we have when we leave it to the engineers.
    • Remarks at conference sponsored by the American Histadrut Cultural Exchange Institute, Harriman, New York (February 17–19, 1967); reported in Judd L. Teller, ed., Government and the Democratic Process; A Symposium by American and Israeli Experts (1969), p. 16.
  • The first opinion the Court ever filed has a dissenting opinion. Dissent is a tradition of this Court... When someone is writing for the Court, he hopes to get eight others to agree with him, so many of the majority opinions are rather stultified.
    • Interview with the New York Times (29 October 1973).
  • The Court's great power is its ability to educate, to provide moral leadership.
    • Interview with Time magazine (12 November 1973).
  • The struggle is always between the individual and his sacred right to express himself and the power structure that seeks conformity, suppression, and obedience.
    • Go East, Young Man: The Autobiography of William O. Douglas (1974), p. 449.
  • It seemed to me that I had barely reached the Court when people were trying to get me off.
    • The Court years, 1939-1975: The Autobiography of William O. Douglas‎ (1980), p. 3.
  • The Constitution is not neutral. It was designed to take the government off the backs of people.
    • The Court years, 1939-1975: The Autobiography of William O. Douglas‎ (1980), p. 8.
  • Tell the FBI that the kidnappers should pick out a judge that Nixon wants back.
    • The Court Years, 1939-1975: The Autobiography of William O. Douglas (1980), p. 232.
  • One who comes to the Court must come to adore, not to protest. That's the new gloss on the First Amendment, Potter.
    • Statement to Justice Potter Stewart on the arrest of peacefully protesting Vietnam War veterans on steps of the Supreme Court, in The Court Years, 1939-1975: The Autobiography of William O. Douglas‎ (1981), p. 234.
  • As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air — however slight — lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.
    • Letter to Young Lawyers Section of the Washington State Bar Association (10 September 1976), The Douglas Letters : Selections from the Private Papers of Justice William O. Douglas (1987), edited by Melvin I. Urofsky and Philip E. Urofsky, p. 162.

Points of Rebellion (1970)

Random House, New York 1970
  • The continuing episodes of protest and dissent in the United States have their basis in the First Amendment to the Constitution, a great safety valve that is lacking in most other nations of the world. The First Amendment creates a sanctuary around the citizen’s beliefs. His ideas, his conscience, his convictions are his own concern, not the government’s.
    • p. 3.
  • At the international level we have become virtually paranoid. The world is filled with dangerous people. Every troublemaker across the globe is a communist. Our obsession is in part the product of a fear generated by Joseph McCarthy. Indeed a black silence of fear possesses the nation and is causing us to jettison some of our libertarian traditions.
    • p. 6.
  • But the fact that communists may have provoked some of the present dissent in the United States is not, as some would have it, the end of the matter. The voices are not communist, for those in rebellion see communism as an even more vicious form of a status quo. The merits must be voted up or voted down.
    • pp. 8-9.
  • The First Amendment was designed so as to permit a flowering of man and his idiosyncracies, but we have greatly diluted it. Although the Amendment says that Congress shall make ‘no law’ abridging freedom of speech and press, this has been construed to mean that Congress may make ‘some laws’ that abridge that freedom.
    • p. 11.
  • A person may be convicted for making a speech or for pamphleteering if a judge rules ex post facto that the speaker or publisher created a ‘clear and present danger’ that his forbidden or revolutionary thesis would be accepted by a least some of the audience.
    • pp. 11-12.
  • But the case against the university is that it is chiefly a handmaiden of the state or of industry or, worse yet, of the military-industrial complex.
    • p. 15.
  • When the university does not sit apart, critical of industry, the Pentagon, and government, there is no fermentative force at work in our society. The university becomes a collection of technicians in a service station, trying to turn out better technocrats for the technological society. Then all voices become a chorus supporting the status quo; there is no challenger from the opposition warning of dangers to come.
    • p. 16.
  • A man's belief is his own; he is the keeper of his conscience; Big Brother has no rightful concern in these areas.
    • p. 19.
  • Ideological data—like personality data—is treacherous when fed into a computer. For by its use the loyalty and security board’s failure or refusal to clear a person becomes a virtually incontestable ‘fact.’ All one has to do now is to press the ‘subversive’ button and all the names of ‘dangerous’ people come tumbling out.
    • p. 28.
  • Big Brother in the form of an increasingly powerful government and in an increasingly powerful private sector will pile the records high with reasons why privacy should give way to national security, to law and order, to efficiency of operations, to scientific advancement, and the like. The cause of privacy will be won or lost essentially in legislative halls and in constitutional assemblies. If it is won, this pluralistic society of ours will experience a spiritual renewal. If it is lost we will have written our own prescription for mediocrity and conformity.
    • p. 29.
  • Electronic surveillance, as well as old-fashioned wire tapping, has brought Big Brother closer to everyone and has produced a like leveling effect… But the Administration soon broadened that category to include domestic groups who attempt to use unlawful means to ‘attack the existing structure of government.’ The Wall Street Journal sounded the alarm that such board surveillance ‘could lead to the harassment of lawful dissenters.’
    • pp. 29-30.
  • There is more knowledge and information than ever before: the experts have so multiplied that man has a new sense of importance; man is indeed about to be delivered over to them. Man is about to be an automation; he is identifiable only in the computer. As a person of worth and creativity, as a being with an infinite potential, he retreats and battles the forces that make him inhuman.
    • p. 32.
  • The dissent we witness is a reaffirmation of faith in man; it is protest against living under rules and prejudices and attitudes that produce the extremes of wealth and poverty and that make us dedicated to the destruction of people through arms, bombs, and gases, and that prepare us to think alike and be submissive objects for the regime of the computer.
    • pp. 32–33.
  • Yet more and more of the youth of America are instinctively horrified at the way President Johnson avoided all constitutional procedures and slyly maneuvered us into an Asian war. There was no national debate over a declaration of war. The lies and half-truths that were told, and the phony excuses gradually advanced, made most Americans dubious of the integrity of our leadership.
    • p. 39.
  • If the war that comes is a nuclear conflict, the end of planetary life is probable. If it is a war with conventional weapons, bankruptcy is inevitable. Modern technological war is much too expensive to fight. Vietnam has bled our country at the rate of 2.5 billion dollars a month.
    • p. 41.
  • We are witnessing, I think, a new American phenomenon. The two parties have become almost indistinguishable; and each is controlled by the Establishment.
    • p. 57.
  • There always have been—and always will be—aggrieved persons. The lower their estate the more difficult it is to find a right to fit the wrong being done. Part of our problem starts at that point. In New York City a housing complaint must go to one of the nineteen bureaus that deal with those problems. It takes a sharp and energetic layman or lawyer to find the proper desk in the bureaucracy where the complaint must be lodged.
    • p. 61.
  • Our militarism threatens to become more and more the dominant force in our lives. This is an inflammatory issue; and dissent on it will not be stilled.
    • p. 65.
  • I believe it was Charles Adams who described our upside down welfare state as ‘socialism for the rich, free enterprise for the poor.’ The great welfare scandal of the age concerns the dole we give rich people.
    • p. 68.
  • The federal food program is not responsive to that growing need. It is designed by the agro-business lobby to restrict production, keep prices high, and assure profits to the producers. That lobby controls the Department of Agriculture, which as a result has made feeding the poor a subordinate and secondary function.
    • p. 72.
  • We must realize that today's Establishment is the New George III. Whether it will continue to adhere to his tactics, we do not know. If it does, the redress, honored in tradition, is also revolution.
    • p. 95.

Quotes about Douglas

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