Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

Whether (1) the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment applies to states, and (2) whether the state criminal anarchy law violated First Amendment.


Affirmed. Gitlow’s conviction was upheld.


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.

Importance of Case

The adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment meant that the states were now bound by certain amendments in the Bill of Rights through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This partly overruled Barron v. Baltimore (1833), which held that the Bill of Rights only applied to the federal government. Although the state could not infringe on Gitlow’s First Amendment protections, the Court upheld his conviction because the government could punish speech that threatens the existence of government itself.

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