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Dennis v. U.S. Appeal: 1951

Dissenters Cite Prior Censorship

Justices William 0. Douglas and Hugo L. Black wrote dissenting opinions. Said Black:

The indictment is that they conspired to use speech or newspapers to teach and advocate the forcible overthrow of the Government. No matter how it is worded, this is a virulent form of prior censorship of speech and press, which I believe the First Amendment forbids.

Douglas wrote:

We deal here with speech alone, not with speech plus acts of sabotage or unlawful conduct. Not a single seditious act is charged.

Free speech—the glory of our system of government—should not be sacrificed on anything less than plain and objective proof of danger that the evil advocated is imminent. On the record no one can say that petitioners and their converts are in such a strategic position as to have even the slightest chance of achieving their aims.

The majority opinion concluded that the Smith Act "does not violate the First Amendment or other provisions of the Bill of Rights." As a result, not only did Dennis and his fellow appellants serve time in prison, but 121 second-rank U.S. Communist Party officials were prosecuted for conspiracy under the Smith Act. Other individual party members also were prosecuted. In every case tried between 1951 and 1956, convictions were obtained. All were affirmed by courts of appeal. All were denied review by the Supreme Court.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Belfrage, Cedric. The American Inquisition, 1945-1960. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1973.

Fast, Howard. Being Red. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

Hoover, J. Edgar. Masters of Deceit. New York: Henry Holt, 1958.

Klehr, Harvey. The Heyday of American Communism: The Depression Decade. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

Mitford, Jessica. A Fine Old Conflict. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971.

Witt, Elder. Guide to the United States Supreme Court. Washington: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1990.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953Dennis v. U.S. Appeal: 1951 - "clear And Present Danger", "beyond These Powers We Must Not Go", Dissenters Cite Prior Censorship