MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.
Section 781-b of the New York Penal Law makes it a crime to distribute in quantity, among other things, any handbill for another which contains any statement concerning any candidate in connection with any election of public officers, without also printing thereon the name and post office address of the printer thereof and of the person at whose instance such handbill is so distributed.
We shall consider first whether abstention from the declaratory judgment sought by appellant would have been appropriate in the absence of his request for injunctive relief, and second, if not, whether abstention was nevertheless justified because appellant also sought an injunction against future criminal prosecutions for violation of § 781-b.
During most of the Nation's first century, Congress relied on the state courts to vindicate essential rights arising under the Constitution and federal laws. The only exception was the 25th section of the Judiciary Act of 1789, 1 Stat. 85, providing for review in this Court when a claim of federal right was denied by a state court.
But we have here no question of a construction of § 781-b that would "avoid or modify the constitutional question." Appellant's challenge is not that the statute is void for "vagueness," that is, that it is a statute "which either forbids or requires the doing of an act in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application . . . ." Connally v. General Construction Co., 269 U.S. 385, 391.
In Turner v. City of Memphis, 369 U.S. 350 (per curiam), we vacated an abstention order which had been granted on the sole ground that a declaratory judgment action ought to have been brought in the state court before the federal court was called upon to consider the constitutionality of a statute alleged to be violative of the Fourteenth Amendment. In McNeese v. Board of Education, 373 U.S. 668, we again emphasized that abstention cannot be ordered simply to give state courts the first opportunity to vindicate the federal claim.
These principles have particular significance when, as in this case, the attack upon the statute on its face is for repugnancy to the First Amendment. In such case to force the plaintiff who has commenced a federal action to suffer the delay of state court proceedings might itself effect the impermissible chilling of the very constitutional right he seeks to protect. See Dombrowski v. Pfister, 380 U.S. 479, 486-487; Baggett v. Bullitt, supra, at 378-379; NAACP v. Button, supra, at 433; cf. Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 64, 74-75; Smith v. California, 361 U.S. 147.
It follows that unless appellant's addition of a prayer for injunctive relief supplies one, no "special circumstance" prerequisite to application of the doctrine of abstention is present here, Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360, 375-379, and it was error to refuse to pass on appellant's claim for a declaratory judgment.
In support of his prayer for an injunction against further prosecutions for violation of § 781-b, appellant's amended complaint alleges that he desires to continue to distribute anonymous handbills in quantity "in connection with any election of party officials, nomination for public office and party position that may occur subsequent to said election campaign of 1966."
The majority below was of the view that, in light of this prayer, abstention from deciding the declaratory judgment issue was justified because appellant had made no showing of "special circumstances" entitling him to an injunction against criminal prosecution. Appellee supports this holding by reliance upon the maxim that a federal district court should be slow to act "where its powers are invoked to interfere by injunction with threatened criminal prosecutions in a state court." Douglas v. City of Jeannette, 319 U.S. 157, 162. We have recently recognized the continuing validity of that pronouncement. Dombrowski v. Pfister, 380 U.S. 479, 483-485. However, appellant here did not, as did the plaintiffs in Douglas, 319 U. S., at 159, seek solely to "restrain threatened criminal prosecution of [him] in the state courts . . . ." Rather, he also requested a declaratory judgment that the state statute underlying the apprehended criminal prosecution was unconstitutional.
The majority below, although recognizing that Douglas might be inapposite to this case, 261 F. Supp., at 990, read Dombrowski v. Pfister as requiring abstention from considering appellant's request for a declaratory judgment in the absence of a showing by appellant of "special
This conclusion was error. Dombrowski teaches that the questions of abstention and of injunctive relief are not the same.
It follows that the District Court's views on the question of injunctive relief are irrelevant to the question of abstention here. For a request for a declaratory judgment that a state statute is overbroad on its face must be considered independently of any request for injunctive relief against the enforcement of that statute. We hold that a federal district court has the duty to decide the appropriateness and the merits of the declaratory request irrespective of its conclusion as to the propriety of the issuance of the injunction. Douglas v. City of Jeannette, supra, is not contrary. That case involved only the request for injunctive relief. The Court refused
The judgment of the District Court is reversed and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, concurring in the judgment.
I agree that, in the circumstances of this case, the District Court should not have declined to adjudicate appellant's constitutional claims. I am, however, constrained by my uncertainty as to the implications of certain portions of the Court's opinion to state my views separately.
This Court has repeatedly indicated that "abstention" is appropriate "where the order to the parties to repair to the state court would clearly serve one of two important countervailing interests: either the avoidance of a premature and perhaps unnecessary decision of a serious federal constitutional question, or the avoidance of the hazard of unsettling some delicate balance in the area of federal-state relationships." Louisiana Power & Light Co. v. City of Thibodaux, 360 U.S. 25, 32 (dissenting
I agree that the present situation is within none of these categories, and that the District Court should therefore not have dismissed, but proceeded to judgment on the issues in the case.
I agree with the Court, substantially for the reasons given in its opinion, that whether or not injunctive relief might ultimately prove appropriate in this instance is not a pertinent question at this stage of the matter.
I accordingly concur in the judgment of the Court, but in doing so wish to emphasize that, like the Court, I intimate no view whatever upon the merits of the constitutional challenge to this statute.
"No person shall print, publish, reproduce or distribute in quantity, nor order to be printed, published, reproduced or distributed by any method any handbill, pamphlet, circular, post card, placard or letter for another, which contains any statement, notice, information, allegation or other material concerning any political party, candidate, committee, person, proposition or amendment to the state constitution, whether in favor of or against a political party, candidate, committee, person, proposition or amendment to the state constitution, in connection with any election of public officers, party officials, candidates for nomination for public office, party position, proposition or amendment to the state constitution without also printing or reproducing thereon legibly and in the English language the name and post-office address of the printer thereof and of the person or committee at whose instance or request such handbill, pamphlet, circular, post card, placard or letter is so printed, published, reproduced or distributed, and of the person who ordered such printing, publishing, reproduction or distribution, and no person nor committee shall so print, publish, reproduce or distribute or order to be printed, published, reproduced or distributed any such handbill, pamphlet, circular, post card, placard or letter without also printing, publishing, or reproducing his or its name and post-office address thereon. A violation of the provisions of this section shall constitute a misdemeanor.
"The term `printer' as used in this section means the principal who or which by independent contractual relationship is responsible directly to the person or committee at whose instance or request a handbill, pamphlet, circular, post card, placard or letter is printed, published, reproduced or distributed by such principal, and does not include a person working for or employed by such a principal."
"This development in the federal judiciary, which in the retrospect seems revolutionary, received hardly a contemporary comment." Frankfurter & Landis, supra, at 65. While there is practically no legislative history of the Act, see id., at 65-69, for a summary of what history is available, commentators are generally agreed that a broad grant of jurisdiction was intended. See, e. g., Forrester, The Nature of a "Federal Question," 16 Tulane L. Rev. 362, 374-385 (1942); Mishkin, The Federal "Question" in the District Courts, 53 Col. L. Rev. 157, 160 (1953). This is not to say that this Court has read the congressional grant of power in the Act of 1875 as equated with the potential for federal jurisdiction found in Article III of the Constitution. See, e. g., National Mut. Ins. Co. v. Tidewater Transfer Co., 337 U.S. 582, 613-615 (opinion of Rutledge, J.); Shoshone Mining Co. v. Rutter, 177 U.S. 505.