Facts of the Case
During World War I, socialists Charles Schenck and Elizabeth Baer distributed leaflets declaring that the draft violated the Thirteenth Amendment prohibition against involuntary servitude. The leaflets urged the public to disobey the draft, but advised only peaceful action. Schenck was charged with conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act of 1917 by attempting to cause insubordination in the military and to obstruct recruitment. Schenck and Baer were convicted of violating this law and appealed on the grounds that the statute violated the First Amendment.
Did Schenck's conviction under the Espionage Act for criticizing the draft violate his First Amendment right to freedom of speech?
The Court held that the Espionage Act did not violate the First Amendment and was an appropriate exercise of Congress’ wartime authority. Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes concluded that courts owed greater deference to the government during wartime, even when constitutional rights were at stake. Articulating for the first time the “clear and present danger test,” Holmes concluded that the First Amendment does not protect speech that approaches creating a clear and present danger of a significant evil that Congress has power to prevent. Holmes reasoned that the widespread dissemination of the leaflets was sufficiently likely to disrupt the conscription process. Famously, he compared the leaflets to falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, which is not permitted under the First Amendment.
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