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Gitlow v. New York

Significance

Twofold: reinforced the then-common legal opinion that provocative political opinions which could be threatening enough to the public interest that freedom of speech could be abridged to silence it, but also was the first time the Supreme Court fully embraced the idea that the Fourteenth Amendment barred the states from denying their citizens freedom of speech without due process.

On 11 November 1919, New York City police officers raided the office of Benjamin Gitlow, a former city assemblyman from the Bronx, and Jim Larkin, a labor organizer, and filed against them charges of criminal anarchy. The two were members of the Communist Party, a radical offshoot of the Socialist Party, which they found to be too mainstream. The pair published a newspaper, The Revolutionary Age, and in it they had published the intellectual bible of their party, a treatise they called "The Left-Wing Manifesto." This manifesto called for the overthrow of the U.S. government and its capitalist system by violent revolution, and spelled out how this revolution was to take place, but did not specifically urge anyone to take action along these lines.

It is not a problem of immediate revolution. It is a problem of the immediate revolutionary struggle. The revolutionary epoch of the final struggle against Capitalism may last for years and tens of years; but the Communist International offers a policy and program immediate and ultimate in scope, that provides for the immediate class struggle against Capitalism, in its revolutionary implications, and for the final act of the conquest of power. The old order is in decay. Civilization is in collapse. The proletarian revolution and the communist reconstruction of society-- the struggle for these--is now indispensable.

Gitlow was convicted on the charges, and the conviction was upheld in the appellate court. In 1923 his case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Defense attorney Walter Pollak issued one of his generation's most spirited and eloquent pleas for freedom of speech, saying:

The citizen's liberty to take part in public affairs stands on another and broader footing. His exercise of his right is free not only in his own interest, but in the interest of the whole community. It is not for his benefit alone that he is permitted to express his views of law, government and politics, and propose his remedies. His views may be silly, his remedies preposterous. Their mere utterance creates some danger that unthinking members of the community may undertake to act upon them. But he is not to be punished either for their utterance--for the danger inherent in the doctrines themselves, as distinct from the danger arising from their utterance in particular circumstances. The citizen has a right to express, for the state may have an interest in hearing, any doctrine. Free government is premised upon the proposition that no human agency other than the ultimate good sense of the whole community can be trusted with power to gauge the dangerous tendency of mere expression of political doctrine. The utterance even of dangerous folly may be a valuable index of the need of wisdom. Folly may suggest wisdom. The liberty of opinion and expression which is essential to free government and which the Constitution protects, is thus an immunity from prosecution because of the intrinsic quality of the ideas expressed.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940Gitlow v. New York - Significance, Victory For Free Speech, Criminal Anarchy