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Masses Publishing Co. v. Patten

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    Citation. 244 F. 535, 1917 U.S. Dist. 1066.

    Brief Fact Summary. The Postmaster of New York barred the publication of an issue of a journal on the theory that it caused a mutinous attitude among our troops at a time of war by arousing discontent among the people, thus, violating the Espionage Act of 1917.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. If one stops short of urging upon others that it is their duty or in their interest to resist the law, such person shall not be held to have attempted to cause the violation of the law.

    Facts. The Postmaster of New York barred the publication of an issue of a revolutionary journal called the Masses on the theory that it caused a mutinous attitude among our troops at a time of war by arousing discontent and disaffection among the people, thus, hampering the government in the conduct of the war in violating the Espionage Act of 1917. The postmaster pointed to four cartoons and four pieces of text as especially violating the Act.

    Issue. Was the postmaster of New York’s ban of the allegedly incendiary issue of the journal consistent with the First Amendment’s right of free speech?

    Held. No.
    To interpret the word “cause” so broadly risks the suppression of all hostile criticism. It would contravene the normal assumption of democratic government – that hostile criticism should not be suppressed based on its substance, decency or propriety. Therefore, it is the Court’s judgment that the Postmaster’s position is not supported by the language of the statute.
    While it is true that political agitation may in fact stimulate people to break the law, to associate such agitation with direct incitement to violent resistance is to disregard the fact that it is the tolerance of political agitation in normal times that is the safeguard of free government.
    It is quite plain that none of the language or cartoons in the issue of the journal suppressed by the Postmaster can be thought to directly counsel or advise insubordination.

    Discussion. This case concerns the issue of when the government can ban articles of speech and expression consistent with the First Amendment. The Court concludes that potentially incendiary speech must be permitted unless it proximately or directly leads to civil unrest or a violation of the law.


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