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Abrams v. United States

In Uncharted Territory

Fewer than a dozen cases involving free expression had come before the Supreme Court prior to 1918. In these cases, the Court upheld federal and state laws limiting speech and other forms of expression that "tended" to have a bad effect. In Patterson v. Colorado (1907), for example, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes had argued that freedom of the press meant merely freedom from censorship prior to publication. He thus had affirmed a state's power to punish even true statements tending to interfere with judicial proceedings. As a result, there were few precedents available when Congress passed the 1917 Espionage Act and the 1918 Sedition Act to curb dissent. These laws led to the first sustained Supreme Court interpretation of the extent to which political speech was to be protected in times of war.

Three cases were decided in March 1919: Schenck v. United States, Frohwerk v. United States, and Debs v. United States. In each of these cases, Justice Holmes wrote the decisions for the unanimous Court. Eight months later, in November 1919, the Court decided Abrams v. United States This time, Holmes was almost alone in dissenting from the majority decision.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Abrams v. United States - Significance, In Uncharted Territory, Creating The Surveillance State, Anarchists And War, Trial And Appeal