Schenck v. United States Case Brief

Summary of Schenck v. United States

Relevant Facts: Schenck mailed circulars to Army draftees during the First World War. The circulars were essentially meant to persuade the draftees to view the war as a moralyl wrong, instigated by the leaders of a global capitalist system. The circulars were alleged to have been incendiary because they compelled draftees to “not submit to intimidation" by acting peacefully outside of the war rather than in the war, and by petitioning to end/repeal the Conscription Act that made drafting legally permissible. Schenck was consequently charged with conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act on the grounds that he actively attempted to compel draftees to be insubordinate, particularly during wartime, and as a result also attempted to obstruct the military from recruiting necessary personnel for the First World War.

Issues: The legal question presented was whether Schenck’s actions, i.e. his words and overall expression, was protected by the free speech clause of the First Amendment or whether it was not protected, with the implicit argument being that there are different First Amendment rules to be observed during wartime.

Holding: The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Schenck’s words and his expressions in this case were not protected, and thus his 1st Amendment rights to freedom of speech and expression had not been violated.

Majority Opinion: Associate Justice Holmes wrote the Court’s opinion, which reasoned that Schenck was not protected because the circumstances (wartime) were so severe and critical to the state of the country that his words effectively presented a “clear and present danger" to the war effort, something that the U.S. Congress had the authority and onus to prevent. The Court thus concluded that typical peacetime actions and expressions that would be fine when there is no war or conflict must to some degree(s) be scaled back during wartime.

Conclusion: This case was important because it provided a distinction (one of several ultimately made by the U.S. Supreme Court) that freedom of speech and expression is not an absolute right; there are parameters and limitations to what individuals can express. In this case, speech that works to subject the country to a “clear and present danger" is not permitted by the Constitution, with the implicit argument being that Schenck’s expression in particular was anathema to national security and therefore problematic for a country trying to protect its Constitution by presenting an effective war effort founded upon sufficient troop levels.



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