De Jonge v. Oregon

Following is the case brief for De Jonge v. Oregon, 299 U.S. 353 (1937)

Case Summary of De Jonge v. Oregon:

  • De Jonge was arrested under a criminal syndicalism law for speaking at a peaceful Communist Party meeting.
  • The trial court denied De Jonge’s motion for acquittal, and De Jonge was ultimately convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the judgment.  It held that the criminal syndicalism statute as applied to De Jonge violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because the rights to free speech and peaceable assembly are expressly protected by the First Amendment.

De Jonge v. Oregon Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Oregon has a law that prohibits “criminal syndicalism,” defined as “the doctrine which advocates crime, physical violence, sabotage, or any unlawful acts or methods as a means of accomplishing or effecting industrial or political change or revolution.”  Violation of the law can result in imprisonment of at least one year and no more than 10 years, and/or a fine.

Appellant De Jonge was charged with criminal syndicalism for speaking at a Communist Party event in Portland, which was raided by police.  No other basis for prosecution existed except for De Jonge’s participation in the meeting.  The facts available did not indicate that communist literature was distributed at the meeting, or that any unlawful conduct occurred at the meeting.

At trial, De Jonge moved for judgment of acquittal, arguing that the criminal syndicalism statute, as applied to him, violated due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Procedural History:

  • The trial court overruled the motion, and De Jonge was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison.
  • The Oregon Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted De Jonge’s appeal.

Issue and Holding:

Does Oregon’s criminal syndicalism law violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause?  Yes.

Judgment:

The decision of the Oregon Supreme Court is reversed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The First Amendment guarantees the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly.  A law that criminalizes exercise of those rights is unconstitutional.

Reasoning:

As the Court stated in United States v. Cruikshank:  “The very idea of government, republican in form, implies a right on the part of its citizens to meet peaceably for consultation in respect to public affairs and to petition for a redress of grievances.”  The First Amendment expressly guarantees those rights.  Denying those rights violates the fundamental principle embodied in the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  A law may prohibit abuses in the exercise of those rights if they lead to violence or crime.  However, a law may not prohibit the rights themselves.

In this case, De Jonge did nothing more than exercise his rights of free speech and assembly.  There was no unlawful conduct, no incitement to violence, nothing beyond an exercise of what the Constitution guarantees as part of a citizen’s personal liberty.

Significance:

De Jonge v. Oregon was a significant decision for two reasons.  First, it recognized that the right to assembly is protected in the States through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Second, the case was important in its day because of the public’s general fear of communism and those claiming to be anarchists.  However, two decades later, the Court allowed a person to be charged for advocating the forceable overthrow of the U.S. in Dennis v. United States.  Two decades after that, however, the Court found a criminal syndicalism law unconstitutional on its face in Brandenburg v. Ohio, affirming the holding in De Jonge.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

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