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Schenck v. United States


This case marked the first time the Supreme Court ruled directly on the extent to which the U.S. government may limit speech. It produced, in the affirmative opinion written by Justice Holmes, two of that fabled jurist's most memorable and oft-quoted statements on the law.

On 15 June 1917, just after the United States entered World War I, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which made it a federal crime to obstruct the country's war effort. The act closely followed the Conscription Act of 18 May, which enabled the government to draft men for military service.

At the Socialist party headquarters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the executive committee quickly passed a resolution authorizing the printing of 15,000 leaflets, to be sent through the mails and otherwise distributed to men who had been drafted. The leaflets recited the first section of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, which states:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Advising the reader that a conscript is little better than a convict, the leaflets described conscription as despotism in its worst form and as a monstrous wrong against humanity in the interest of Wall Street's chosen few. "Do not submit to intimidation," said the leaflets, urging readers to petition for repeal of the Conscription Act.

"If you do not assert and support your rights," continued the leaflets, "you are helping to deny or disparage rights which it is the solemn duty of all citizens and residents of the United States to retain." Furthermore, the message implied that there was a conspiracy of cunning politicians and a mercenary capitalist press that would be aided even by silent consent to the conscription law, and it said the law lacked the power to send Americans to foreign shores to shoot the people of other countries.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Schenck v. United States - Significance, "largely Instrumental In Sending The Circulars About", Clear And Present Danger Test, Further Readings