Summary of Abrams v. United States
Citation: 250 U.S. 616
Relevant Facts: Two U.S. citizens were charged and convicted under the Espionage Act for distributing two anti-war leaflets, which they had thrown from the windows of a building. One leaflet in particular denounced the sending of American trips to the war effort in Russia. The defendants were ultimately charged and convicted for inciting resistance to the American war effort (WWI) and for trying to garner the curtailment of war material production. For their crimes, they were sentenced to 20 years imprisonment.
Issues: The legal question presented was whether the amendments of the Espionage Act or their application violated the First Amendment’s free speech clause.
Holding: The Supreme Court found that the Act’s amendments were constitutional.
Reasoning: The Supreme Court found that the Act’s amendments were constitutional because the leaflets constituted an obvious appeal for violent as opposed to peaceful revolution as well as active encouragement for others to stall or otherwise adversely affect the American war effort via the ceasing of arms productions. As such, the Court reasoned that the speech was not covered because it was being used to directly undermine in a way the amendment it sought to praise by working to dismantle the country’s national security apparatus in a war (WWI).
Dissent: Justice Holmes famously dissented in this case and argued that although the defendants were certainly calling for a cease of weapons production, they had not violated the Act because they did not intend to “to cripple or hinder the United States in the prosecution of the war.” Since their effect was negligible, there was no real danger or threat. Holmes further went on to elucidate (similarly regarding the Sedition Act), that free speech needed to especially be free from government intervention when it is thought that said speech could be an affront to governmental power. Only when clear and present danger exists, can free speech be possibly encroached upon. Holmes argued the following:
“Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition…But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas."
Conclusion: This case was particularly important because of both its majority and dissenting opinions. While later cases would find that free speech cannot be encroached upon unless clear and present danger (imminent danger) exists [Holmes], the case put in stark relief that speech rights are delicate during war times.