This case raised important questions about Congress's power to enforce the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT and about the scope of section 241 of Title 18 of the United States Code, a federal criminal CIVIL RIGHTS statute deriving from
section 6 of the FORCE ACT of 1870. Section 241 outlaws conspiracies to interfere with rights or privileges secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States. A group of whites allegedly murdered Lemuel A. Penn, a black Army officer, while he was driving through Georgia on his way to Washington, D.C. Two of the whites were charged with murder and acquitted by a state court jury. They and others then were indicted under section 241 for conspiracy to deprive blacks of specified constitutional rights by shooting, beating, and otherwise harassing them and by making false criminal accusations causing the blacks to be arrested. The rights allegedly deprived included the right to use state facilities free of RACIAL DISCRIMINATION and the RIGHT TO TRAVEL freely throughout the United States. The Supreme Court held that the alleged conduct constituted a crime under section 241, punishable by Congress under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Guest 's principal significance stems from two separate opinions, joined by a total of six Justices, that addressed the question whether the Fourteenth Amendment empowers Congress to outlaw private racially discriminatory behavior. In an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, Justice WILLIAM J. BRENNAN, joined by Chief Justice EARL WARREN and Justice WILLIAM O. DOUGLAS, stated that section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment grants Congress authority to punish individuals, public or private, who interfere with the right to equal use of state facilities. Justice TOM C. CLARK, in a concurring opinion joined by Justices HUGO L. BLACK and ABE FORTAS, in effect agreed with the portion of Justice Brennan's opinion relating to Congress's power. Justice Clark's opinion stated that there could be no doubt about Congress's power to punish all public and private conspiracies that interfere with Fourteenth Amendment rights, "with or without STATE ACTION."
Guest also raised the question whether, in light of the state action doctrine, the defendants, all private persons, were legally capable of depriving others of Fourteenth Amendment rights within the meaning of section 241. Justice POTTER STEWART'S opinion for the Court, which, as to this point, Justice Clark's...