Abrams v. United States

Following is the case brief for Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919)

Case Summary of Abrams v. United States:

  • A small group of Russian immigrants produced leaflets in response to U.S. troops being on Russian soil for operations during WWI.
  • The leaflets called for a strike at ammunition plants so that the U.S. would not have weapons to continue to wage war.
  • Two such leaflets were thrown from a New York City window.
  • Those two leaflets formed the basis of an Espionage Act prosecution against the group of Russian immigrants.
  • The immigrants were convicted in District Court and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed.  It held that speech intended to excite riots and sedition during a time of war is not protected by the First Amendment.

Abrams v. United States Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

The United States, during WWI, participated in a military operation on Russian soil against the Germans.  In response, a small group of Russian immigrants in the United States circulated flyers calling for a strike in ammunition plants in order to hurt the supply of weaponry and, thus, undermine the war effort.

The small group of defendants were indicted for throwing two leaflets out of a New York City window.  One leaflet denounced American troops on Russian soil.  The second one denounced the war, and called for a halt to the production of weapons.  The defendants were convicted under the Espionage Act and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Procedural History:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court took the case on writ of error from the District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Issue and Holding:

Does the First Amendment protect speech that seeks to undermine the Nation’s war effort?  No.

Judgment:

The decision of the District Court for the Southern District of New York is affirmed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The First Amendment does not protect speech that is meant to excite sedition, riots, revolution, and undermine the United States’ efforts during wartime.

Reasoning:

When the purpose of written material is to excite disaffection, sedition, riots, and revolution to possibly defeat the military plans of the U.S., the First Amendment does not protect that speech.  Therefore, the defendants can be prosecuted under the Espionage Act.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Dissenting Opinion (Holmes): 

This case is about two leaflets.  Neither attack the U.S.’s form of government, and there is no proof that the defendants intended for the leaflets to cripple or hinder the U.S. in the prosecution of the war.  Free speech under the First Amendment should only be curtailed when there is a present danger of immediate evil or intent to bring it about.  No such intent is in this case.  The defendants had as much right to publish the leaflets as the Government has the right to publish the Constitution of the United States.

“I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.”  We did away with sedition laws in this country for that reason.  The defendants were deprived of their constitutional rights in this case.

Significance:

Abrams v. United States demonstrates what could happen when a “mob-mentality” controls and is focused on speech that presents no real danger to the existence of the U.S. government.  The majority opinion allows a 20-year sentence for two leaflets calling for a strike in order to protest U.S. troops on Russian soil.  Justice Holmes’ clear and present danger test, articulated in his dissent, has become the standard for much of our First Amendment jurisprudence.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

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