Clear and Present Danger.

Certain expression, oral or writ-ten, may incite, urge, counsel, advocate, or importune the commission of criminal conduct; other expression, such as picketing, demonstrating, and engaging in certain forms of “symbolic” action, may either counsel the commission of criminal conduct or itself constitute criminal conduct. Leaving aside for the moment the problem of “speech-plus” communication, it becomes necessary to determine when expression that may be a nexus to criminal conduct is subject to punishment and restraint. At first, the Court seemed disposed in the few cases reaching it to rule that if the conduct could be made criminal, the advocacy of or promotion of the conduct could be made criminal.463 Then, in Schenck v. United States,464 in which the defendants had been convicted of seeking to disrupt recruitment of military personnel by disseminating leaflets, Justice Holmes formulated the “clear and present danger” test that has ever since been the starting point of argument. “The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree.”465 The convictions were unanimously affirmed. One week later, the Court again unanimously affirmed convictions under the same act with Justice Holmes writing, “we think it necessary to add to what has been said in Schenck v. United States only that the First Amendment while prohibiting legislation against free speech as such cannot have been, and obviously was not, intended to give immunity for every possible use of language. We venture to believe that neither Hamilton nor Madison, nor any other competent person then or later, ever supposed that to make criminal the counselling of a murder within the jurisdiction of Congress would be an unconstitutional interference with free speech.”466 And, in Debs v. United States,467 Justice Holmes upheld a conviction because “the natural and intended effect” and the “reasonably probable effect” of the speech for which the defendant was prosecuted was to obstruct military recruiting.

In Abrams v. United States,468 however, Justices Holmes and Brandeis dissented upon affirmance of the convictions of several alien anarchists who had printed leaflets seeking to encourage discontent with the United States’ participation in World War I. The majority simply referred to Schenck and Frohwerk to rebut the First Amendment argument, but the dissenters urged that the government had made no showing of a clear and present danger. Another affirmance by the Court of a conviction, the majority simply saying that “[t]he tendency of the articles and their efficacy were enough for the offense,” drew a similar dissent.469 Moreover, in Gitlow v. New York,470 a conviction for distributing a manifesto in violation of a law making it criminal to advocate, advise, or teach the duty, necessity, or propriety of overthrowing organized government by force or violence, the Court affirmed in the absence of any evidence regarding the effect of the distribution and in the absence of any contention that it created any immediate threat to the security of the state. In so doing, the Court discarded Holmes’ test. “It is clear that the question in such cases [as this] is entirely different from that involved in those cases where the statute merely prohibits certain acts involving the danger of substantive evil, without any reference to language itself, and it is sought to apply its provisions to language used by the defendant for the purpose of bringing about the prohibited results. . . . In such cases it has been held that the general provisions of the statute may be constitutionally applied to the specific utterance of the defendant if its natural tendency and probable effect was to bring about the substantive evil which the legislative body might prevent. . . . And the general statement in the Schenck Case . . . was manifestly intended . . . to apply only in cases of this class, and has no application to those like the present, where the legislative body itself has previously determined the danger of substantive evil arising from utterances of a specified character.”471 Thus, a state legislative determination “that utterances advocating the overthrow of organized government by force, violence and unlawful means, are so inimical to the general welfare and involve such danger of substantive evil that they may be penalized in the exercise of its police power” was almost conclusive to the Court.472 It is not clear what test, if any, the majority would have used, although the “bad tendency” test has usually been associated with the case. In Whitney v. California,473 the Court affirmed a conviction under a criminal syndicalism statute based on the defendant’s association with and membership in an organization that advocated the commission of illegal acts, finding again that the determination of a legislature that such advocacy involves “danger to the public peace and the security of the State” was entitled to almost conclusive weight. In a technical concurrence, which was in fact a dissent from the opinion of the Court, Justice Brandeis restated the “clear and present danger” test. “[E]ven advocacy of violation [of the law] . . . is not a justification for denying free speech where the advocacy fails short of incitement and there is nothing to indicate that the advocacy would be immediately acted on. . . . In order to support a finding of clear and present danger it must be shown either that immediate serious violence was to be expected or was advocated, or that the past conduct furnished reason to believe that such advocacy was then contemplated.”474

Footnotes

463
Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. 333 (1890); Fox v. Washington, 236 U.S. 273 (1915). [Back to text]
464
249 U.S. 47 (1919). [Back to text]
465
249 U.S. at 52. [Back to text]
466
Frohwerk v. United States, 249 U.S. 204, 206 (1919) (citations omitted). [Back to text]
467
249 U.S. 211, 215–16 (1919). [Back to text]
468
250 U.S. 616 (1919). [Back to text]
469
Schaefer v. United States, 251 U.S. 466, 479 (1920). See also Pierce v. United States, 252 U.S. 239 (1920). [Back to text]
470
268 U.S. 652 (1925). [Back to text]
471
268 U.S. at 670–71. [Back to text]
472
268 U.S. at 668. Justice Holmes dissented. “If what I think the correct test is applied, it is manifest that there was no present danger of an attempt to overthrow the government by force on the part of the admittedly small minority who shared the defendant’s views. It is said that this manifesto was more than a theory, that it was an incitement. Every idea is an incitement. It offers itself for belief and if believed it is acted on unless some other belief outweighs it or some failure of energy stifles the movement at its birth. The only difference between the expression of an opinion and an incitement in the narrower sense is the speaker’s enthusiasm for the result. Eloquence may set fire to reason. But whatever may be thought of the redundant discourse before us it had no chance of starting a present conflagration. If in the long run the beliefs expressed in proletarian dictatorship are destined to be accepted by the dominant forces of the community, the only meaning of free speech is that they should be given their chance and have their way.” Id. at 673. [Back to text]
473
274 U.S. 357, 371 (1927). [Back to text]
474
274 U.S. at 376. [Back to text]