Yates v. United States

Following is the case brief for Yates v. United States, 354 U.S. 298 (1957)

Case Summary of Yates v. United States:

  • A group of petitioners were indicted under the Smith Act, which makes it a crime to advocate and teach the violent overthrow of the U.S. Government.
  • In this case, petitioners were accused of recruiting members to the Communist party and creating publications that advocated for the forcible overthrow of the Government.
  • They were ultimately convicted by a federal jury, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case.  It held that there is a difference between advocating the overthrow of the government in the abstract, and actually presenting a real danger of people taking action.  Because the evidence did not support any danger of an actual overthrow of the government, five of the petitioners should be acquitted and the remainder should get new trials.

Yates v. United States Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

The Smith Act makes it a crime to conspire to advocate for the violent overthrow of the U.S. Government.  The 14 petitioners in this case were indicted under the Smith Act.  Specifically, the indictment alleged that the petitioners, over a 10-year period, recruited people for the Communist party and published articles about advocating overthrow of the government, among other activities.

Procedural History:

  • Petitioners were convicted after a jury trial.
  • The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Does advocating for the violent overthrow of the government in the abstract with no call to action rise to the level of actionable criminal conduct?  No.

Judgment:

The decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is reversed and remanded.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

There is a distinction between advocacy and teaching of forcible overthrow of the government as an abstract principle, and instigation of action to that end.  The latter is criminally chargeable, the former is not.

Reasoning:

As a threshold matter, the trial court’s use of the term of “organize” was too broad for application of the Smith Act.  Such error was not harmless.

Further, the Smith Act does not prohibit advocacy of the forcible overthrow of the government in the abstract.  The Smith Act is only implicated when such advocacy presents a danger that action in accordance with the advocacy will follow, as in Dennis v. United States.

The evidence in this case was so clearly insufficient to satisfy the Smith Act that five petitioners should be acquitted, and the remainder should be given new trials.

Concurring in Part, Dissenting in Part (Black):

All of the petitioners should be acquitted.  The Smith Act abridges the First Amendment’s freedom of speech.

Significance:

Yates v. United States follows in the same lines as Dennis v. United States, such that the First Amendment protects radical speech, unless it presents a “clear and present danger” to safety or national security.   

Student Resources:

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Listen to the Oral Arguments

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