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Speiser v. Randall

Punishing Subversive Ideas

The state of California passed a law in 1954 requiring that a property-tax exemption for veterans be denied to anyone refusing to sign an oath of loyalty that stated "I do not advocate the overthrow of the Government of the United States or of the State of California by force or violence or other unlawful means, nor advocate the support of a foreign Government against the United States in event of hostilities." The appellant, an honorably discharged World War II veteran, struck the clause from the exemption form he filed for the 1954-55 tax year, arguing it violated the U.S. Constitution. The tax assessor denied the requested exemption only because the oath had not been signed. The appellant sought relief in the Superior Court of Contra Costa County, which found the relevant section of the California statute invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment. The California Supreme Court, however, reversed this decision. The U.S. Supreme Court considered the case along with that of Daniel Prince, another veteran denied exemption under similar circumstances.

In a decision reflecting the opinion of six members of the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Brennan held that the California statute's requirement of a loyalty oath violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it placed the burden of proof on the individual. Justice Black concurred, stating that the First Amendment prohibited California from imposing a tax on belief and expression. Justice Douglas concurred with Justice Black, noting that the Constitution prohibits government from monitoring thought. Justice Clark dissented, and Chief Justice Warren did not participate in the decision.

Throughout its history, the Supreme Court has struggled with questions relating to free speech. In the period immediately following World War I, anti-sedition laws that criminalized anti-government speech were rigorously enforced and resulted in numerous convictions. Between 1919 and 1920, the Court heard six of these cases. In Schenck v. United States (1919) the Court relied on common law analysis to determine the boundaries between protected and proscribed speech. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his majority opinion, established that prohibited speech must present "a clear and present danger that [it] will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent." This became the standard judicial test for determining whether speech should be permitted or restricted.

In the next several years, the Court heard many cases involving aspects of national and state loyalty and security measures. In Dennis v. United States, the Court ruled that advocating the overthrow of the government in itself was not sufficient to warrant conviction unless it included not only "clear and present danger" but also incitement to action. The next year, the Court in Wieman v. Updegraff (1952), threw out a state loyalty law in Oklahoma that created "guilt by association." After the appointment of Earl Warren as Chief Justice in 1953, the Court began to move more quickly to identify the limits of criminal speech and to respond to what the majority on the Court considered excesses in prosecuting dissent. According to Paul L. Murphy in The Constitution in Crisis Times, the chief justice believed that the Court's role was "an active course in the pursuit of social justice" through "vigorous statutory interpretation, with an eye to bringing the operation of American legal institutions into harmony with professed American ideals." The Court did not want to deprive the legislative branch of the power to protect society from subversion, but it did act to moderate the extremes of such laws by focusing on procedural questions.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Speiser v. Randall - Significance, Punishing Subversive Ideas, The Burden Of Proof, Justice Clark's Dissent, Impact