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Dennis v. United States


The U.S. Supreme Court's review of this case provides a classic example of how the guarantees of the First Amendment must be balanced against the nation's need, as prescribed by Congress, to protect itself. The opinions written by the justices contain memorable expressions of this paradox.

The Alien Registration Act of 1940, known as the Smith Act, made it a crime "to knowingly or willfully advocate, abet, advise, or teach the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence." Publication or display of printed matter teaching or advocating overthrow of the government was forbidden, as was organizing any group that teaches, advocates, or encourages overthrow of government by force. Also against the law was "knowing" membership in any group dedicated to that end.

In July of 1948, Eugene Dennis, general secretary of the Communist Party in the United States, and ten other party leaders were indicted for violating the Smith Act by conspiring to organize groups that taught the overthrow of the government. In a sensational trial that lasted nine months and resulted in a record 16,000 pages of testimony, the defendants argued that First Amendment freedom of speech protected them. Finding that the leaders of the Communist Party were unwilling to work within the framework of democracy but, rather, intended to initiate a violent revolution, the jury convicted them all.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953Dennis v. United States - Significance, "clear And Present Danger", "beyond These Powers We Must Not Go", Dissenters Cite Prior Censorship