Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494; 71 S. Ct. 857; 95 L. Ed. 1137 (1951)

Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494; 71 S. Ct. 857; 95 L. Ed. 1137 (1951)

Facts—Eleven leaders of the Communist Party were convicted of violating the 1940 Smith Act. The defendants were convicted of conspiring to organize the Communist Party for the purpose of having it teach and advocate the overthrow and destruction of the U.S. government by force and violence. They claimed Articles Two and Three of the act violated the First Amendment and other provisions of the Bill of Rights and the First and Fifth Amendments because of indefiniteness.

Question—Did the Smith Act violate the right of free speech, or due process?

Decision— No.

ReasonsC.J. Vinson (6–2). The Congress has the power to protect the U.S. government from armed rebellion, and the defendants were advocating the violent overthrow of the government. This law was not directed at discussion but against the advocacy of violence. These persons intended to overthrow the U.S. government as soon as conditions would permit. This represented a clear and present danger to the government. It was the existence of the highly organized conspiracy that created the danger. “Whatever theoretical merit there may be to the argument that there is a ‘right’ to rebellion against dictatorial government is without force where the existing structure of the government provides for peaceful and orderly change. We reject any principle of governmental helplessness in the face of preparation for revolution, which principle, carried to its logical conclusion, must lead to anarchy.” Vinson utilized the language of a lower court decision to say that “In each case [courts] must ask whether the gravity of the ‘evil,’ discounted by its improbability, justifies such invasion of free speech as is necessary to avoid the danger.”

J. Black and J. Douglas both wrote dissents claiming that these prosecutions were aimed at the belief in, and advocacy of unpopular beliefs, rather than at conduct.

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