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Abrams v. United States

Citation. 250 U.S. 616, 40 S. Ct. 17, 63 L. Ed. 1173, 1919 U.S.
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Brief Fact Summary.

The Petitioner, Abrams (Petitioner), was convicted of conspiring with the German government to write and distribute disloyal information about the Respondent, the United States (Respondent), during World War I.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Unintended consequences of speech are treated as if the speaker intended such a reaction.


The Petitioner published and distributed articles critical of the Respondent throughout New York City. The articles were published in English and Yiddish to increase circulation. The Petitioner was born in Russia and claimed to be a rebel who did not believe in government of any form. Petitioner was charged with using abusive language about the form of United States government, using language intended to bring about contempt, scorn, and disrepute of the government, and using language intended to incite and encourage resistance to the war.


Can one be held responsible for the unintended consequences of one’s speech?


Yes. Prior cases have held this type of speech may be restricted in time of war.


Speech may not be restricted unless the speaker actually intended to cause a disruptive action by the audience. To restrict such speech, is to shut down the “marketplace of ideas” and free exchange that has been the backbone of our nation’s growth.


Although this action was not meant to induce panic and disrupt the security actions of the nation, it was sufficiently negative in nature to cause such a reaction. Therefore, it is ruled that the authors knew or should have known that these reactions would result and so by default intended negativity.

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