Sedition is speech or action designed to incite rebellion against the government.

Opinions & Commentaries

Socialist Charles Schenck was charged with conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act of 1917 for distributing leaflets which called the draft involuntary servitude and called for a boycott of the draft. The act made it a crime to “attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States, or shall wilfully obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States[.]”

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Eugene Debs, a candidate for president, expressed anti-draft and anti-war sentiments at a rally, illustrated by his statement to the crowd, “[Y]ou need to know that you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder.” The Supreme Court, finding “the defendant caused and incited and attempted to cause and incite insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny and refusal of duty in the military and naval forces of the United States and with intent so to do delivered, to an assembly of people, a public speech,” held that Debs’ speech violated the Espionage Act.

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Russian immigrants protesting recent U.S. military action in Russia were convicted for two leaflets thrown from a New York City window that called for a strike at U.S. ammunitions plants. Congress had declared in the Espionage Act that such propaganda would harm the war effort, and the Supreme Court had previously upheld the Espionage Act as constitutional in Schenck v. United States (1919).

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Benjamin Gitlow, a socialist, was arrested in 1919 for distributing a “Left Wing Manifesto” that called for the establishment of socialism through strikes and class action of any form. Gitlow was convicted under New York’s Criminal Anarchy Law, which punished advocating the overthrow of the government by force. Gitlow challenged his conviction, arguing that the First Amendment restrains the states as well as the federal government and that the criminal anarchy law violated the First Amendment.

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Overruled

By a criminal information filed in the Superior Court of Alameda County, California, the plaintiff in error was charged, in five counts, with violations of the Criminal Syndicalism Act of that State. Statutes, 1919, c. 188, p. 281. She was tried, convicted on the first count, and sentenced to imprisonment. The judgment was affirmed by the District Court of Appeal. 57 Cal. App. 449. Her petition to have the case heard by the Supreme Court[1] was denied. Ib. 453. And the case was brought here on a writ of error which was allowed by the Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal, the highest court of the State in which a decision could be had. Jud. Code, § 237.

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This case is here to review the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirming an order of the Subversive Activities Control Board that petitioner register with the Attorney General as a "Communist-action" organization, as required by the Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950, Title I of the Internal Security Act of 1950, 64 Stat. 987. That Act sets forth a comprehensive plan for regulation of "Communist-action" organizations.[1] Section 2 of the Act describes a *117 world Communist movement directed from abroad and designed to overthrow the Government of the United States by any means available, including violence. Section 7 requires all Communist-action organizations to register as such with the Attorney General. If the Attorney General has reason to believe that an organization, which has not registered, is a Communist-action organization, he is required by § 13 (a) to bring a proceeding to determine that fact before the Subversive Activities Control Board, a five-man board appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate and created for the purpose of holding hearings and making such determinations. Section 13 (e) lays down certain standards for judgment by the Board.

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Overruled (in part)

We brought these cases here to consider certain questions arising under the Smith Act which have not heretofore been passed upon by this Court, and otherwise to review the convictions of these petitioners for conspiracy to violate that Act. Among other things, the convictions are claimed to rest upon an application of the Smith Act which is hostile to the principles upon which its constitutionality was upheld in Dennis v. United States, 341 U. S. 494.

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Petitioners were indicted in 1956 under 18 U.S.C. § 371 for conspiring fraudulently to obtain the services of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on behalf of the union of which they were officers or members by filing false affidavits in purported satisfaction of the requirements of § 9(h) of the National Labor Relations Act, as amended. Section 9(h), later repealed, provided that a union could not secure NLRB services unless it had filed with the NLRB so-called non-Communist affidavits of each union officer. The Government alleged that, pursuant to a conspiracy, four of the petitioners, union officials who purported to resign from the Communist Party but in reality retained their Party affiliations, filed the required affidavits during 1949-1955, enabling the union to use the NLRB. Petitioners were convicted, but the Court of Appeals, while sustaining the indictment, reversed on the ground that prejudicial hearsay evidence had been admitted. On retrial, petitioners were again convicted, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Certiorari was granted, limited to the following questions: whether the indictment stated the offense of conspiracy to defraud the United States; whether § 9(h) is constitutional; and whether the trial court erred in denying petitioners' motion for production to the defense of grand jury testimony of prosecution witnesses, or alternatively, for in camera inspection of the grand jury testimony.

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Brandenburg was convicted of violating a criminal law that prohibited speech that advocates crime, sabotage, violence, and other similar acts after he spoke at a KKK rally. The Supreme Court found that the law infringed on Brandenburg's First Amendment rights, and created the imminent lawless action test. In order for speech to fall out of First Amendment protection, it must 1) be directed at producing imminent lawless action and 2) it is likely to produce such action.

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