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Yates v. United States

    Brief Fact Summary. Fourteen individuals were arrested, and later convicted by a trial court, for violation Smith Act. These individuals were accused of advocating, teaching and intending to overthrow the government.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Mere advocacy and teaching for the overthrow of the government is not enough to punish otherwise the otherwise protected liberty of free speech and free press. There must be something more than just belief, they must be urged to perform some action either now or in the future.

    Facts. Fourteen Petitioners stand convicted upon a charge of conspiring to advocate and teach the duty and necessity of overthrowing the government of the United States by force and violence, and to organize as the Communist Party of the United States a society of persons who so advocate and teach, all with the intent of causing the overthrow the government. The Petitioners were later convicted under the Smith Act, which prohibited one from conspiring to advocate and teach the duty and necessity of overthrowing the Government of the United States by force and violence, and forbids one from organizing, as the Communist Party of the United States, a society of persons who so advocate and teach, all with the intent of causing the overthrow of the Government by force and violence as speedily as circumstances would permit.

    Issue. Whether the Smith Act, in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of free speech and assembly, prohibits advocacy and teaching of forcible overthrow as an abstract principle, divorce from any effort to instigate action to that end so long as such advocacy or teaching is engaged in with evil intent?

    Held. No. The Smith Act does not violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution, as it does not punish mere advocacy and teaching of forcible overthrow as an abstract principle. The Smith Act does not punish mere doctrinal justification of forcible overthrow, unless it is engaged with the intent to accomplish overthrow. The Court states that the Smith Act does not denounce advocacy in the sense of preaching abstractly the forcible overthrow of the government. Furthermore, the trial court’s statement that the proscribed advocacy must include the urging, necessity and duty of forcible overthrow, and not merely its desirability and propriety, may not be regarded as a sufficient substitute for charging that the Smith Act reaches only advocacy of action for the overthrow of government by force and violence. The essential distinction is that those to whom the advocacy is addressed must be urged to do something, now or in the future, rather than to merely believe in somethi
    ng. Therefore, as the Smith Act requires more than just the mere teaching of beliefs in order to be held in violation of the act, i.e. some overt action or the advocacy of immediate violent action, the act does not violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.

    Dissent. Would reverse every one of the convictions and direct that all Defendants be acquitted because the statutory provisions on which these prosecutions are based abridge freedom of speech, press and assembly in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
    Would affirm the convictions as they include the same group of Defendants as in Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494 (1951), in fact having engaged in the conspiracy with those Defendants, the only difference is that they occupied a lower echelon in the party hierarchy. The dissent disagrees however in the Court’s declaration that the trial court judge erred in the jury instructions in this case that did not involve the Dennis charge, which were previously requested by both the prosecution and defense in this case. Furthermore, the dissent finds no difference between Dennis and this case, and feels that the Court should have followed its decision in Dennis.

    Discussion. This case limits the State and Federal government’s power to limit free speech and free press by narrowing Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652 (1925), which stood for the premise that while the freedom of speech and press are protected liberties under the Fourteenth Amendment, a State may restrict these freedoms if it feels that it is in the best interest of public safety and welfare. In reaching the decision in this case, the Court ensures the protection of free speech by requiring some overt act or threat to act in order to restrict speech, narrowing the States ability to regulate speech by protecting the mere advocacy or teaching of ideas that would lead one to believe that an overthrow is a good idea. The line by which the State can regulate speech after this case stands at the point at which there is a danger of violent action. This case also puts forth the “conspiratorial-nexus” theory to analyze the threat of illegal action, wherein more frequent incidents of advocacy
    and more violent incendiary language will be seen as a more immediate threat and prosecutable under the Smith Act.


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