Abrams v. United States • Work taken from the United States Reports of the U.S. Supreme Court • Argued October 21-22, 1919 • Decided November 10, 1919
Court Membership • Chief Justice was Edward Douglass White. • Associate Justices: Joseph McKenna, Oliver Holmes, William Day, Willis Van Devanter, Mahlon Pitney, James McReynolds, Lois Brandeis, and John Hessin Clarke • Case opinions: Majority by Clarke and Dissent by Holmes
Defendants • Jacob Abrams and four colleagues were convicted of conspiring to violate the Espionage Act.
Main Points According to Mr. Justice Clarke and the opinion of the courts, Abrams and others advocated a strike in munitions production and the violent overthrow of the Government. • “Courts charge the defendants with conspiring to unlawfully utter, print, write and publish abusive language about the form of government of the United States.” • “The manifest purpose of such a publication was to create an attempt to defeat the war plans of the government, by bringing upon the country the paralysis of a general strike, thereby resting production of munitions and other things essential to the conduct of war.”
Main Points The points of Mr. Justice Holmes dissenting, Abrams and others should not be viewed as criminals due to their writings • “Advocacy of a general strike do urge curtailment of production of things necessary to the prosecution of the war within the meaning of the Act of 1917. But to make the conduct criminal that statute requires that it should be with intent by such curtailment to cripple or hinder the United States in the persecution of the war.” The first amendment should protect Abrams freedom of speech • “ I refer to the First Amendment to the Constitution that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom or speech.”
Main Points Congress cannot forbid all effort to change the mind of the country. • “ The principle of the right to free speech is always the same. It is only the present danger or immediate evil or an intent to bring it about that warrants Congress in setting a limit to the expression of opinion where private rights are not concerned.” • The truth has to be accepted within the competition of the market. • “The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.”
Historical Significance • Abrams v. United States was during the time while America intervening into the Russian Revolution • The case involved the 1918 amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917 which made it a criminal offense to criticize the U.S. Federal Government. • The case was overturned during the Vietnam War Era in Brandenburg v. Ohio • Based on Holmes argument of “clear and present danger”
Questions to Consider?? • If we can agree that what Abrams advocates in his pamphlet is wrong, how can we most effectively discredit his argument? • When does one cross the line between freedom of speech and immediate danger or evil intent?