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Schenck v. U.S. Appeal: 1919 - "largely Instrumental In Sending The Circulars About", Suggestions For Further Reading

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940

Appellant & Defendant: Charles T. Schenck
Appellee & Plaintiff: The United States of America
Appellant Claim: Not guilty, as convicted, of conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act of 1917
Chief Defense Lawyer: John Lord O'Brian
Chief Lawyers for Appellant: Henry J. Gibbons and Henry John Nelson
Justices: Louis D. Brandeis, John H. Clarke, William R. Day, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Evans Hughes, Joseph McKenna, James C. McReynolds, Willis Van Devanter, and Edward D. White, Chief Justice
Place: Washington, D.C.
Date of Decision: March 3, 1919
Decision: Guilty verdict unanimously affirmed

SIGNIFICANCE: This case marked the first time the Supreme Court ruled directly on the extent to which the U.S. government may limit speech. It produced, in the affirmative opinion written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, two of that fabled jurist's most memorable and oft-quoted statements on the law.

On June 15, 1917, just after the United States entered the World War, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which made it a federal crime to obstruct the country's war effort. The act closely followed the Conscription Act of May 18, which enabled the government to draft men for military service.

At the Socialist Party headquarters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the executive committee quickly passed a resolution authorizing the printing of 15,000 leaflets, to be sent through the mails and otherwise distributed to men who had been drafted. The leaflets recited the first section of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Advising the reader that a conscript is little better than a convict, the leaflets described conscription as despotism in its worst form and as a monstrous wrong against humanity in the interest of Wall Street's chosen few. "Do not submit to intimidation," said the leaflets, urging readers to petition for repeal of the Conscription Act.

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