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Whitney v. California

The California Criminal Syndicalism Act

As with the era of McCarthyism in the 1950s, the Red Scare of the late 1910s and early 1920s followed a world war. In both cases, the winding down of international hostilities had been attended by the spread of Communism: thus after World War II, Communists took over numerous countries in Europe, and to many Americans, a Soviet takeover of the United States seemed possible if not imminent.

Responding to fears inspired by the "Wobblies" (the Industrial Workers of the World), as well as by Communists and other agitators, Idaho in 1917 passed a criminal syndicalism law which became the model for California's and that of most other states. Much like its predecessor in Idaho, the 1919 California act defined "criminal syndicalism" as "any doctrine or precept advocating, teaching, or aiding and abetting the commission of crime, sabotage . . . or unlawful acts of force . . . as a means of accomplishing a change in industrial ownership . . . or effecting any political change." Likewise the California act, in accordance with the Idaho model, defined participation in "criminal syndicalism" as "a felony . . . punishable by imprisonment."

In the heyday of the Red Scare, from 1917 to 1920, no fewer than 22 states and territories adopted criminal syndicalism laws, and eight others considered adopting them. But by the 1930s--a period when American sympathy for Communism was its highest point, due to the Great Depression--most criminal syndicalism laws had fallen into disuse. The Supreme Court overturned its Whitney ruling once and for all with Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Whitney v. California - Significance, Supreme Court Upholds California Criminal Syndicalism Law, The California Criminal Syndicalism Act, Further Readings