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Dennis v. U.S. Appeal: 1951

"clear And Present Danger", "beyond These Powers We Must Not Go", Dissenters Cite Prior Censorship

Appellants: Benjamin Davis, Eugene Dennis, John Gates, Gil Green, Gus Hall, Irving Potash, Jack Stachel, Robert Thompson, John Williamson, Henry Winston, and Carl Winter
Defendant: United States
Appellants Claims: That the Smith Act, under which appellants were found guilty, violates the First Amendment and other provisions of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution
Chief Defense Lawyers: Philip B. Perlman and Irving S. Shapiro
Chief Lawyers for Appellants: George W. Crockett, Jr., Abraham J. Isserman, and Harry Sacher
Justices: Hugo L. Black, Harold H. Burton, William 0. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, Robert H. Jackson, Sherman Minton; Stanley F. Reed, and Fred M. Vinson, (Tom C. Clark not participating)
Place: Washington, D.C.
Date of Decision: June 4, 1951
Decision: Provisions of the Smith Act prohibiting willful advocacy of overthrow of government by force or violence, organization of any group for that purpose and conspiracy to violate such provisions were held not to violate the First Amendment or other provisions of the Bill of Rights in a 6-2 decision.

SIGNIFICANCE: The U.S. Supreme Court's review of this case provides a classic example of how the guarantees of the First Amendment must be balanced against the nation's need, as prescribed by Congress, to protect itself. The opinions written by the justices contain memorable expressions of this paradox.

The Alien Registration Act of 1940, known as the Smith Act, made it a crime "to knowingly or willfully advocate, abet, advise, or teach the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence." Publication or display of printed matter teaching or advocating overthrow of the government was forbidden, as was organizing any group that teaches, advocates, or encourages overthrow of government by force. Also against the law was "knowing" membership in any group dedicated to that end.

In July 1948, Eugene Dennis, general secretary of the Communist Party in the United States, and 10 other party leaders were indicted for violating the Smith Act by conspiring to organize groups that taught the overthrow of the government. In a sensational trial that lasted nine months and resulted in a record 16,000 pages of testimony, the defendants argued that First Amendment freedom of speech protected them. Finding that the leaders of the Communist Party were unwilling to work within the framework of democracy but, rather, intended to initiate a violent revolution, the jury convicted them all.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1941 to 1953