Summary of Whitney v. California
Citation: 274 U.S. 357 (1927)
Relevant Facts: Anita Whitney participated in the founding of Communist Labor Party of America. She was present at the convention where the party Constitution was adopted, and like other members, pledged to adhere to its principles. The goals of that movement included establishment of a revolutionary worker class and the overthrow of the capitalist system. Furthermore, they sought the reformation of society to conform to their Communist ideals. Whitney, as a former representative of the Oakland branch of the Socialist Party, was instrumental in the Communist Party convention and served as Chairman of the Credentials Committee and a member of the Resolutions Committee. Amongst other resolutions, Whitney signed off on a resolution urging workers to join with the revolutionary working class as a means of obtaining political power with the ultimate aim of overthrowing capitalism. Upon her return to California, she was charged with violating the Criminal Syndicalism Act on the basis of her participation in creating the National Party and its local California affiliate. Under the terms of the law, membership in organizations devoted to the violent overthrow of government was illegal. At trial, she admitted membership but denied her support for either violence or terrorism, claiming instead her aims and means were all valid under existing law. She was convicted, and this appeal followed.
Issue: Whether convictions under California’s Criminal Syndicalism law violated the due process and equal protections rights of defendants under the Fourteenth Amendment? Whether the California Criminal Syndicalism law violated the speech and association rights of the Defendant?
Holding: No, States may criminalize membership in organizations consistent with both due process and equal protection.
Reasoning : Justice Sanford delivered the opinion of a unanimous Court. First, the Court dealt with jurisdiction. The Court will not consider cases or issues unless they have been actually and finally decided below. Here the record was initially unclear. However, looking at the appeal and by stipulation of the parties, the Court determined that the California Court of Appeals had passed on the federal questions. Thus, the constitutionality of the Act was properly before the Court. Next, the Court dealt with the Appellant’s knowledge about the nature of the organization- of which she claimed ignorance. Here the majority determined that her knowledge was a question of fact foreclosed from further review by the fact-finder below. As to the constitutional claims, Justice Sanford first addressed the due process claim. The Court found that the statute was sufficiently clear such that Whitney had notice of proscribed acts. As to Equal Protection, the Court dismissed concerns that the Act in question differentiated between those who advocated violent means to oppose the current political and social structure versus those who wished to maintain the status quo. Here the Court explained that state statutes are not required to be all-encompassing, nor are they required to criminalize every conceivable dangerous behavior merely because they selectively criminalize others. Rather, the Court will only invalidate statutes so unreasonable as to preclude the possibility that they represent the exercise of discretionary legislative judgment. Furthermore, the statute applied equally to all without regard to their membership in any particular class. Finally here, the Court pointed out that similar statutes in other states represented the collective judgment that the evils protected against were widely recognized. Finally, the Court addressed the Appellant’s speech and association rights. The majority pointed out that First Amendment speech protections, as applied to the states by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, are not absolute. Rather, states may punish speech that abuses protected freedoms by endangering the public welfare- here by advocating the overthrow of government. Justice Sanford explained that the Court would generally defer to the judgment of state legislatures regarding acts that posed a danger to the general welfare, allowing states to exercise their police powers in preventing dangerous speech likely to threaten the public welfare. As to free association, the majority compared the prohibitions here to a criminal conspiracy. While individuals are generally free to join with others of like mind, they may- consistent with the constitution- be prevented from associated for an illegal purpose. As the majority noted, the dangers of collective action here are even greater than individual advocacy of unlawful means to effect societal change.
Concurrence: Justice Brandeis concurred, joined by Justice Holmes. While he ultimately concluded that the Court could not review the convictions here, Justice Brandeis nonetheless offered extensive commentary on constitutional protections for disfavored speech. He noted that due process necessarily protects more than procedural rights and extends to substantive guarantees. Next, he noted that states- acting to prohibit generally protected conduct- must first sufficiently establish the dangers they seek to prevent. Pointing out that the Court lacked a sufficiently clear standard for what constitutes a “clear and present danger," Justice Brandeis suggested that any analysis must begin with the presumption that states cannot prohibit speech or assembly merely because a majority of citizens find such speech repugnant. Citing the historical importance of free speech in any free society, Justice Brandeis pointed out that fear of injury alone is insufficient to ban speech. While he felt compelled to concur in the judgment here, Justice Brandeis would have preferred to address the constitutionality of the statute at issue on its face rather than as applied to Whitney.
Conclusion: States may, consistent with the Constitution, prohibit both speech and association by or through organizations that advocate the violent overthrow of government. In this case, the state statute violated neither the due process guarantees nor the equal protection rights of the petitioner, as it was a generally applicable law of sufficient clarity to inform citizens of the behaviors proscribed.