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Speiser v. Randall


The Speiser decision clarified that, though the Smith Act made it illegal to belong to any organization that advocated the violent overthrow of the government, individuals have the constitutional right to be considered innocent of a crime until proven guilty. It also established that the guarantee of due process under the law protects individuals from the burden of having to prove their innocence. In a subsequent case, Elfbrandt v. Russell (1966), which involved membership in a radical organization, the Court cited the Speiser decision when it declared "to presume that one who joins a subversive organization shares its illegal aims is forbidden--the state may not compel a citizen to prove that he has not engaged in criminal advocacy." And in Baird v. State Bar of Arizona (1971), the Court decided in favor of a bar applicant who claimed she had been denied admission based on her membership in the Communist Party. This case established that political beliefs or memberships cannot be used as the basis for refusing vocational licenses.

This does not mean, however, that the Court banned all loyalty oaths. In fact, loyalty statutes for public employees are still on the books in many states and, though challenges to such laws have sometimes succeeded, the Court in other cases has upheld these statutes. For example, in Connell v. Higgenbotham (1971), the Court invalidated a loyalty oath in Florida because it called for the summary dismissal of an employee who refused to sign it without giving the employee an opportunity to explain the refusal. But in Cole v. Richardson (1972), the Court upheld a loyalty oath.

Speiser also confirmed due process guarantees. For example, in Smith v. California, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a bookstore owner who had been convicted of obscenity charges by having, on the store premises, a title deemed obscene. Using the analysis articulated in Speiser, the Court noted that the laws could not be applied "in a manner tending to cause even a self-imposed restriction of free expression." In its focus on due process, the Speiser case typified the general movement of the Warren Court toward more liberal interpretations of constitutional safeguards for individuals.

Confronted with a Congress that was hunting down alleged Communist Party members and passing harsh legislation against those it considered subversive (the Immunity Act of 1954, for example, allowed Congressional committees to obtain a federal judicial order compelling a witness to testify, despite the Fifth Amendment's guarantee of immunity, if the matter involved national security), the Supreme Court acted to counter the erosion of guaranteed individual rights. This strong role, in the opinion of some scholars, set the stage for civil rights activism in other areas, culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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