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Benjamin Gitlow Trials: 1920-25

Darrow For The Defense, "i Ask No Clemency", The Fourteenth Amendment, Unnoticed Landmark, Gitlow V. Stalin

Defendant: Benjamin Gitlow
Crime Charged: Criminal Anarchy
Chief Defense Lawyers: Trial Court: Clarence Darrow; U.S. Supreme Court: Walter H. Pollak, Walter Nelles
Chief Prosecutors: Trial Court: Alexander I. Rorke; U.S. Supreme Court: John Caldwell Meyers, W. J. Wetherbee, Claude T. Dawes
Judges: Trial Court: Bartow S. Weeks; U.S. Supreme Court: Chief Justice William Howard Taft, Willis Van Devanter, James McReynolds, Edward T. Sanford, George Sutherland, Pierce Butler, Harland Fiske Stone, Louis Brandeis, Oliver Wendell Holmes
Places: Trial Court: New York, New York; U.S. Supreme Court: Washington, D.C.
Dates of Trials: Trial Court: January 30-February 5, 1920; Supreme Court decision: June 8, 1925
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Five to ten years in prison

SIGNIFICANCE: Benjamin Gitlow was charged in 1919 with "criminal anarchy" by the state of New York. His offense: publishing the Left Wing Manifesto, a call for revolution. He was convicted and sentenced to five to ten years in prison. The verdict was upheld by the New York Court of Appeals and affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The case is significant not because the Supreme Court upheld Gitlow's right to publish what he did. It did not. The Court held that the states' police power allowed New York to prosecute utterances that were blatantly inimical to the general welfare. But for the first time, it held that the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause protected personal rights, like freedom of speech, as well as property rights, from infringement by the states.

When World War I ended, the Communist revolution in Russia was in full swing. Communist uprisings were occurring in Germany, Hungary, Finland, and other countries. In the United States, there was a "red scare." In November 1919, New York police rounded up leaders of the left wing of the disintegrating American Socialist Party. One was Benjamin Gitlow, a former state representative and publisher of a left-wing Socialist newspaper (he was later to become a co-founder of the Communist Labor Party). He was charged with criminal anarchy for publishing The Left Wing Manifesto, which called for "mass strikes of the American proletariat," to overthrow the government.

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